The national Republican Party may be fortunate that California governor Jerry Brown is probably too old to run for president. One needn’t be a fan of Brown’s policies to recognize that, in his fourth and final term, the governor formerly known as “Moonbeam” is displaying a level of political skill that could be hard to beat. True, he had a long record of saying some rather radical stuff on his syndicated “We the People” radio show back in the 1990s. He’s proud of his tax-raising efforts and is committed to dubious and expensive environmental policies. Yet, he is warmly received not only by the state’s Democratic establishment, but also by many Republicans.
As a columnist in Sacramento, I’m always surprised at the nice things said about Brown—even off the record. Republicans see him as the most “conservative” elected official with any power in the state capitol and their last line of defense. Democrats credit him for hauling the state out of its deep fiscal mess. They get frustrated the governor isn’t as eager to create new social programs as they are—but they still get 90 percent of what they want from him.
If anyone doubts Brown’s approach, look no further than the budget he introduced on January 9. The $164.7 billion proposal for Fiscal Year 2015–16 takes state spending to record levels. He’s provided no check on the vast increase in the Medi-Cal program, which would expand from 7.9 million recipients to 12.2 million—roughly a third of the state’s residents—in three years. He talks a good game about fixing the state’s underfunded pension systems and unfunded health-care liabilities, but the reforms he touts do little except kick the can down the road. He seems more interested in protecting union priorities than taking on his core constituency.
The high-speed rail system Brown embraces would cost $68 billion (based on extremely conservative state estimates) to create a transportation option that would be outdated and unnecessary by the time it comes on line—assuming it ever does, given the lack of funding streams. His plan to build twin tunnels under the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is another legacy-building project with a huge price tag but without the promise of delivering more water to the Southland.
Brown spent his first two terms from 1975 to 1983 halting the kind of infrastructure projects the state needed to meet a growing population. Now, he’s channeling the spirit of his father, Governor Pat Brown, who 50 years ago bequeathed California with a modern highway and water system. The state needs better roads and water storage, which the current governor supports—but he is more interested in projects that fight global warming. Indeed, his global-warming approach could stunt the state’s economic growth and will certainly hobble its competitiveness. In his January 5 inaugural speech, Brown called for policies that would slash the state’s reliance on petroleum-based fuels by 50 percent and boost the percentage of the state’s electricity generation from renewable sources from 30 percent to 50 percent.
California’s landmark Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 (signed by Arnold Schwarzenegger, but embraced by Brown) is significantly raising electricity and fuel costs, hiking taxes for manufacturers and leading to aggressive land-use restrictions that drive up housing costs—especially in the state’s already expensive big-city housing markets. He has downplayed legitimate concerns about the state’s oppressive tax and regulatory climate.
When Brown returned to the governor’s office in 2010, California faced budget deficits upward of $26 billion. Brown led the campaign in 2012 for Proposition 30, which imposed large income- and sales-tax increases. Combined with a recovering stock market—California’s tax system depends heavily on capital gains—the result was a balanced general-fund budget (provided you don’t look too closely, or count underfunded liabilities). Still, by Sacramento standards he’s holding the spending line and at least putting liability issues on the table.
To his credit, Brown insists that the Prop. 30 tax increases remain temporary. In his budget, he refuses to create new social programs and reminds legislators that, in California, deep deficits almost always follow balanced budgets. He axed the state’s redevelopment agencies, which doled out corporate welfare, though he signed into law a new, less troublesome type of replacement agency. He uses conservative language when talking about poverty, noting that California’s safety net is generous and arguing that the poor should acquire the skills to get good jobs. Such an approach—even if mostly rhetorical—buys him widespread bipartisan support.
“Brown has delivered a very consistent message to the state’s business community over the last four years: ‘I might not be your best friend, but around here I’m the best friend you’ve got,’” said Dan Schnur, a former Republican consultant and professor at the University of Southern California. “He has held the line against more ambitious spending from the Democrats in the legislature, which allows him to balance a rightward lean on budget matters with a more liberal approach to environmental and public safety issues. He got both sides to sign on to his water bond and rainy day fund, which might not leave him precisely on the 50 yard line, but certainly to the right of most legislative Democrats and the left of most Republicans.”
That explains why pension reformers, the business community, and taxpayer groups are relatively comfortable with the governor. Everyone seems to like him, which might have more to do with his personality and intellectual curiosity than anything else. He gets a pass on some of his wilder views because people understand he likes to toss around ideas. At press conferences, Brown directly answers questions (rather than sticking to talking points) and goes off on entertaining tangents about philosophers and historical figures. At a press event in Sacramento, the governor came up to me, mentioned something I’d written, then fumbled around his cell phone to give me the name of an author he thought I should read. Other reporters and politicians tell similar stories. From an authenticity standpoint, what’s not to like?
“He’s not an embarrassment like his predecessor,” said Grant Gillham, a political consultant and former Republican staffer. “Unlike Schwarzenegger, he’s not hamming it up for the cameras, or making stupid ‘girly-man’ jokes. . . . He’s got a Jesuit’s education, but a Franciscan’s behavior. After the last several clown acts, we’re all better for it.”