Gov. Jerry Brown Leaves Mixed Legacy As California Lurches Left

Brown wasn't exactly a secret libertarian, but libertarians might end up missing him.


After California Gov. Jerry Brown completed his bill signings and vetoes in the first year of his third and penultimate term as governor, this columnist urged the governor to release his "inner libertarian."

The comment was a bit facetious, given that Brown had a well-established political philosophy that generally favored a larger and more muscular state government, rather than the limited variety favored by libertarians. It was wishful thinking, perhaps.

But Brown had, on some occasions, expressed authentic-sounding skepticism toward government interventions and its many grandiose intentions. "Every year, on average about 1,000 new laws are enacted and most of the laws are solutions to the same problems," the governor said in 2011. "It means that no matter how many solutions are provided every year we have the same number of problems." I opined that he probably "gets it" at some level, although now is a better time to assess the record as he completes his final term.

Brown signed more than 1,000 bills this year. The governor Tweeted that he decided on nearly 20,000 bills in his 16 years. That encapsulates my frustration with his tenure. He's smart, forthright and blunt in the "laughing with you" way that Donald Trump could never achieve. But—and here's the big but—Brown's actions rarely lived up to his rhetoric, at least from a libertarian's point of view. He knows that most new bills do little, but his veto rate averaged only 9-13 percent.

Of course, libertarian ideas are rarely even on the table in Sacramento (or Washington, D.C., for that matter). Judging even by Brown's own fiscally frugal claims, he often disappointed. I loved those big charts that he'd pull out during regular budget press conferences warning about the evils of excessive spending given that recessions always are around the corner. Then he'd sign a record-setting spending budget, albeit one more responsible than whatever atrocity Democratic legislators had envisioned. And boy did he like to raise taxes to fix budget holes.

He also missed opportunities. Brown clearly understands the depth of the state's pension crisis. He passed an oh-so-modest 2013 reform law and his administration authored an impressive legal brief urging changes to a doctrine (the California Rule) that limits localities' ability to trim pension costs. But he never had the courage to take on the public-sector unions and achieve substantive reform. It could have been a Nixon-goes-to-China moment, given his close relations with those unions, but it happened only in my dreams.

Brown is smart and entertaining. So he convinces even people like me, who usually disagree with his politics, that he's about to do the right thing. The fault is with us, I suppose, for harboring unrealistic expectations. And don't get me started on his bullet train boondoggle, or his costly and environmentally destructive Delta tunnel plan, or his over-the-top rhetoric about global warming. These will be his main legacies. Like a movie that's getting long in tooth, but rallies at the end and leaves the audience applauding (or at least not booing), Brown's final scene had some redemptive moments.

In his first two terms of office, when crime rates were rising and the public was understandably fearful, the governor signed some tough-on-crime measures, such as the Uniform Determinate Sentencing Act of 1976. Those laws reflected the spirit of the time, but they led to the prison-overcrowding situation that Brown was forced to deal with in his later terms through his controversial realignment plan.

In recent months, though, Brown showed real leadership for wide-ranging criminal-justice reform. As the New York Times summarized it, he "signed a bill to overhaul California's so-called felony murder rule, which has allowed accomplices to a homicide to be convicted even if they did not pull the trigger. A new law on how the police use photo lineups is aimed at preventing wrongful convictions. And last month, Mr. Brown signed a law ending cash bail, the first state to do so." I'm not comfortable with all of these signings, but it is time the pendulum swung back the other way.

He also signed Senate Bill 1421, which provides greater public access to police personnel files. It was desperately needed. Since a dreadful state Supreme Court decision in 2006 (the Copley decision), it's been nearly impossible to get information about police-misconduct allegations. Such secrecy has endangered the public because overly aggressive officers are shielded from accountability. The Times noted that Brown also signed an important bill requiring the release of body-cam footage within 45 days of a use-of-force incident.

In hindsight, there's little evidence that Brown ever had much of an inner libertarian, or at least he didn't release it very much. But he did so on a few important occasions. As Brown heads into the sunset (or to his Colusa County ranch) and the state paddles further to the left, libertarians might find ourselves missing his time in office.

This column was first published by the Orange County Register.

Steven Greenhut is Western region director for the R Street Institute. He was a Register editorial writer from 1998-2009. Write to him at