When Jerry Brown was unveiling his final state budget this month, a reporter asked him about the legacy of his record-long governorship.
“Can you tell me the legacy of Goodwin Knight? Or Gov. (Frank) Merriam. Or (George) Deukmejian?” Brown replied with a characteristic smirk. “Governors don’t have legacies. That’s my No. 1 proposition.”
Well, yes they do, and during his second gubernatorial incarnation, Brown has often invoked the accomplishments of his father, Pat Brown. It has been a marked contrast to his first stint as governor four decades ago, when, as sons are wont to do, he was trying to project his own identity.
In fact, one could infer that Jerry Brown’s entire second governorship has been, at least partly, an effort to bury the “Governor Moonbeam” image he acquired the first time around and compare favorably with the father he now embraces.
That inference was bolstered by Brown’s final State of the State address last week, one devoted largely to recounting what he and the Legislature have done over the last seven years and only minimally to any agenda for his final year.
“Simply put, California is prospering,” Brown told legislators as he began his half-hour-long address. “While it faces its share of difficulties, we should never forget the bounty and endless opportunities bestowed on this special place—or the distance we have all traveled together these last few years.”
Brown punctuated his speech with lists of what he clearly regards as major accomplishments, such as pension reform, workers compensation reform, creation of a “rainy day fund” to protect the state budget, a multibillion-dollar transportation improvement program financed by new gas taxes and fees, education finance reform and the cap-and-trade approach to curbing greenhouse gases.
“All are big and very important to our future, and their passage demonstrates that some American governments can actually get things done—even in the face of deepening partisan division,” he said after one such list.
Later, he effusively plugged the two huge public-works projects that would be, if completed, comparable in scope to those of his father—tunnels to carry water beneath the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and a north-south bullet train system—and insisted that they will happen despite deep financial woes.
“Difficulties challenge us, but they can’t discourage or stop us,” Brown said. “Whether it’s roads or trains or dams or renewable energy installations or zero-emission cars, California is setting the pace for America. Yes, there are critics, there are lawsuits and there are countless obstacles. But California was built on dreams and perseverance, and the bolder path is still our way forward.”
If that’s not braggadocio, it certainly is pointing with pride. So let’s assume that Brown’s speech was, indeed, bidding for a commendable legacy. Does it qualify?
Yes, but with a caveat. Most of the items he cited are, in fact, works in progress that may, or may not, pan out in the longer run.
For example, his education reform, aimed at raising the academic performances of poor and English-learner students, is certainly needed. But it has not had a material effect yet and is plagued by indications that the extra money meant for those high-needs kids is being dissipated.
Likewise, the pension reform will have very little impact on what has become an immense crisis for local governments.
The two big infrastructure projects he promotes may never happen, because they face potentially intractable financial shortfalls.
The rainy-day fund seems immense, topping out at $13.5 billion. But Brown’s own budget staff says even a mild recession could cost the state $60 billion in lost revenue over three years, thanks to an imbalanced tax system that Brown has been unwilling to address.
In brief, it’s way too early to assess Brown’s governorship.