No matter what Gov. Jerry Brown says in his final State of the State speech Thursday at the state Capitol, there can be little disagreement that he is leaving his successor a much healthier California than the one he inherited from Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2011.
In his first statewide address as governor that year, Brown didn’t minimize the challenges ahead. He described the coming legislative session, which he predicted would be “extraordinarily difficult and wrenching” as the state grappled with a huge budget deficit.
“California faces a crisis that is real and unprecedented,” Brown told assembled legislators and guests, adding that “kicking the can down the road by not owning an honest budget is simply out of the question.”
Indeed, the first budget he signed in June 2011 cut state spending by $15 billion, making changes that helped pave the way for California’s economic recovery.
To be sure, the old investment advice “buy low, sell high” applies to politics as well. And Jerry Brown did just that, becoming governor when California and the rest of the nation were mired in economic misery. Unless something dramatically changes in the next year, he will have the benefits of a strong economy for pretty much his entire two terms.
H.D. Palmer with the state Department of Finance points out that Brown faced a budget deficit of more than $27 billion when he took office for the second time in 2011, having first served as governor from 1975 to ’83. His administration will end with a state budget surplus of more than $6 billion.
“Absent an economic crisis or a natural disaster, the one thing that his successor will be able to enjoy,” Palmer said, “is the fact that the budget will be in good shape and that he or she will not have to immediately deal with the kind of budget crisis that Gov. Brown and many of his predecessors had to deal with as their first order of business after swearing their oath.”
Palmer acknowledges the budget surplus isn’t entirely Brown’s doing. The state’s economy has been strong. According to the Department of Finance, non-farm jobs have increased by more than 18 percent during Brown’s most recent time in office. Voters also signed off on several tax increases, Proposition 30 in 2012 and Proposition 55 in 2016. But, Palmer notes, Brown has learned from the past, when one-time revenues were often committed to ongoing spending, only to be cut when a recession hit.
“The governor doesn’t want to make the mistake again,” Palmer said. “And so he has been very insistent on making sure that one-time revenues are put aside for things like rainy days and reserves and spending that is not higher and ongoing in nature that would have to be cut back dramatically in the event of an economic downturn.”
Brown’s tendency toward fiscal restraint is appreciated by Assemblyman Jay Obernolte (R-Hesperia). He serves as vice chair of the Assembly Budget Committee and said Brown has done a good job of reining in the majority-Democrat Legislature.
“He is usually one of the few adult voices in the room when it comes to fiscal restraint in spending,” Obernolte said. “Although state spending has grown more than I would have liked to have seen it grow in recent years, it is true that he has restrained that level of spending.”
Still, Obernolte says Brown’s restraint doesn’t extend to tax increases. He points to the governor’s support for Proposition 30 and the recent hike in the gas tax, for which Brown campaigned hard.
“When you look at the fact that California has such a large budget surplus right now, it’s evidence that taxes were raised too much,” Obernolte said.
But Republican consultant Sean Walsh, who worked for Governors Pete Wilson and Arnold Schwarzenegger, says while the state coffers are in better shape, fundamental reforms to stabilize the budget long-term have not happened.
“One percent of the state’s taxpayers pay nearly 50 percent of the state’s taxes,” Walsh said. “That is a very mobile class of individuals,” suggesting the state’s high tax rate could push wealthy residents to leave or stay away from California.
Nonetheless, Brown’s legacy — a concept he resists — will include a wide range of areas, including:
Brown inherited a state prison system that was bulging at the seams and under court order to reduce the population.
Starting with AB 109, commonly known as “realignment,” Brown started shifting responsibility for many non-serious, nonviolent criminals from the state to counties. Realignment has worked better than many of its opponents feared it would, but the jury is still out.
He also embraced the idea of “second chances” for convicted criminals, rejecting the policies of past governors, who regularly reversed parole recommendations for lifers and others who met the criteria for release.
The in-state prison population has fallen from about 150,000 when Brown took office to just over 130,000 last month. Other reforms were embraced by Brown, including his Proposition 57 to reduce prison time for some offenses, which voters passed with 64 percent approval in 2016.
The full impact of all these changes will take years to determine, and there are already efforts to rein in some of the changes, which critics say are too lenient for some crimes, such as vehicle break-ins.
Since taking office, Brown has appointed more than 450 judges, including three of the Supreme Court’s seven members. That’s about one-quarter of the sitting judges in California. He still has one more vacancy to fill and says he’s taking longer than usual while he “assesses exactly what the court needs.” His fourth appointment to the Supreme Court will give him a majority of the justices.
His appointments are slowly remaking the courts, which have lagged far behind the diversification of California as a whole. As governor, Brown has broken many glass ceilings with his appointments, including the first Hmong-American judge in the United States, the first Latina judge ever in Riverside County and the first openly gay appeals court judge in California history.
He also has appointed far more public defenders and defense attorneys to the bench than his predecessors, adding a different kind of diversity to the bench.
Brown was green the first time he was governor in the 1970s and ’80s. And in his second eight years, he has once again championed renewable energy.
He successfully enacted an extension of the state’s cap-and-trade program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It also generates billions of dollars for things like the governor’s beloved but troubled high-speed-rail project and other initiatives related to the environment. Brown managed to extend cap and trade until 2030, with two-thirds majorities in the Senate and Assembly, including an impressive number of Republicans.
And of course the unexpected election of Donald Trump has vaulted Gov. Brown into something of an international celebrity, preaching the imperative of addressing climate change.
The one area of Brown’s legacy that environmentalists object to is his support of fracking. Activists have dogged him at events from time to time, unsuccessfully pushing him to change his position.
Brown is often criticized for not doing enough about the state’s high poverty levels. But Jessica Bartholow, with the Western Center on Law and Poverty, said he’s done more than he gets credit for.
“While he’s been governor the second time, we’ve seen profound movement in programs serving low-income families, specifically the CalWORKS program,” Bartholow said. She cites the repeal of the Maximum Family Grant program, which limited aid to babies born while their mothers were on welfare. Bartholow said Brown doesn’t come to the table with ideas himself, but dares advocates to bring him proposals he must support.
Assemblyman Chad Mayes (R-Yucca Valley) gives Brown more mixed reviews. He notes that, by some measures, California has the highest poverty rate in the nation. He cites high housing, food and energy costs as contributors. But he also points to the decline in low-skill, high-paying jobs in California.
“While it’s true that we have a low unemployment rate here in California currently,” Mayes said, “we’ve got a bunch of folks that are barely able to make ends meet because there’s just not enough high-paying jobs here.”
Brown’s administration points to California’s earned income tax credit and the local control funding formula for schools as attempts to target spending and tax credits to help the poor.
There is still plenty for the next governor to tackle, not the least of which is the ultimate “kick the can” issue: Pension liabilities.
On that score, “Governor Brown has tinkered around the edges and added some patches but no systemic and meaningful reform was enacted,” says Sean Walsh.
Brown always resists assessing what his legacy will be, even saying at a recent press conference that “governors don’t have legacies.”
But like it or not, Brown’s legacy is extensive — for better or worse, depending on your point of view — and it will be much discussed and debated for years to come.