Jerry Brown

The Last Adult in Sacramento

Making sense of the complicated and contradictory legacy of California Gov. Jerry Brown.

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Three years after his failed run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1992, California's once and future governor addressed the International Transpersonal Association Conference. I have no idea what that is, but the group's name—and his ruminations on the nation's political system—were just so Jerry Brown.

After a joke about the small crowds in New Hampshire, Brown said that "We are in a degenerate state of self-government." He said he didn't want to depress the audience. But "as much as I dislike politics," he noted, "I have devoted my life to it—out of some form of enlightened masochism—or some other deep motive that I have not yet been able to plumb. But I am not sick of it, and I am not cynical about it—but I'm not naive about it."

As Brown heads into the sunset (or at least to his Colusa County ranch), many political writers in California are trying to assess his recent legacy. It's not hard to tally up some of his wins and losses, think about his good policies and bad ones and analyze the latter Brown years as one would analyze the legacy of any politician. But it's much harder to assess Brown using the title of that speech: "Political Consciousness and Transformative Action." Did Brown manage to transform the way politics is done in California?

It's an interesting question because Brown is likely to be remembered as the last adult in Sacramento—the guy who made sure the books were in balance. Some of his parting words echo that theme. In a December 11 exit interview with National Public Radio, Brown touted a $14 billion budget surplus. "Now, what did I do or didn't do?" he asked. "I did rein in spending. I did—and then that took fortitude against the tendency of the Democratic Party to spend on almost anything that somebody comes up with that, you know, that satisfies all of the key constituencies."

That's the kind of accomplishment that any Republican might tout, albeit Brown achieved it with multiple, unnecessary tax increases—and he signed budgets that set records for spending. But there's little doubt that Brown owned the Legislature these past eight years. He got his way on everything from budget negotiations to some of his more controversial priorities (such as a $100 billion bullet train and his climate-change activism).

A little fiscal responsibility isn't really transformative. Balancing the books and building up a rainy day fund is arguably the fundamental job of the governor. Doing so as the member of a party that typically had supermajorities in the Legislature and controlled every statewide constitutional office shouldn't be that big of a deal. But his efforts often worked against his own party which, as he added, "only know[s] how to say 'yes,' even to harebrained schemes."

Two of his most significant accomplishments often are overlooked. In 2011, the federal courts had ordered California to reduce its prison overcrowding from 180 percent to 137.5 percent of design capacity within two years. Republicans still complain about the resulting policies, namely the "realignment" law that sent many nonviolent state prisoners to county jails and voter initiatives that reduced sentences for some offenders. But Brown was at his best there.

He at one point vowed to defy the federal orders for further reductions, but he wasn't about to let 10,000 felons loose on the streets two years after he had already passed that realignment plan. Ultimately, Brown won an extension from the courts and the prison population fell after voters approved a couple of criminal-justice initiatives.

The other significant, but overlooked, policy involved his 2011 dissolution of the state's notoriously ham-fisted redevelopment agencies, which subsidized private development and routinely abused eminent domain. Brown dissolved the agencies because he desperately needed cash during a budget crisis. But it was a big deal whatever his motivations.

Ironically, as his administration reaches its end, Brown has taken on some of the more potentially transformative issues. His attorneys have taken an admirable stance before the state Supreme Court arguing for changes in the "California Rule," which makes it virtually impossible for localities to rein in pension debt. Cities are being crushed by overly generous pension promises, and unless that rule is changed they could face a future of diminished services, higher taxes, and even bankruptcy.

Brown also has been setting records for issuing pardons and commutations. He complained about the "atmosphere, the gangs, the hopelessness, sentences that are so long…the no-exit attitude has made it virtually impossible to have any strong rehabilitative atmosphere." His last-minute commutations are a haphazard way to deal with an issue that should have been a feature early in his administration.

But did he transform politics? Of course not. Then again, politics is the wrong place to seek transformation.

This column was first published in 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 sgreenhut@rstreet.org.

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28 responses to “The Last Adult in Sacramento

  1. What a beautiful column.

    Comrade Moonbeam will be missed as he passes the torch of taxing and regulating to some snot nosed gen z doofus with a beard and ironic t-shirt.

  2. As Brown heads into the sunset (or at least to his Colusa County ranch), many political writers in California are trying to assess his recent legacy.

    Jerry Brown helped push Taxifornia into Commifornia [period]

    That’s his legacy.

    Brown helped make sure CA prisons filled up. California had two prisons for many decades. In 1980 there were 23,264 prisoners. By 1982 there were 27,913 prisoners. From 1982 to 2000, CA prison population raised 500% with a peak in 2006 of 163,000 state prisoners. Most of these were for drug convictions. As of 2016, Commifornia spends about $64,000 per prisoner.

    Brown was against Prop 13, which held property taxes down to a 1% growth rate.

    California roads are some of the worse in the USA as massive traffic and relatively little spending on maintenance compared to social programs has ensured high wear-and-tear on vehicles.

    Brown was Mayor of Oakland, a predominantly black city. Explain that one and you explain Brown’s appeal.

    1. Public Policy Institute of California

      Jerry Brown is also responsible for resisting upgrades needed to Commifornia’s infrastructure.
      The true legacy of Gov. Jerry Brown

  3. We need more adults and less snowflakes!

  4. Could’ve been worse… A LOT WORSE!!!

    1. And it’s going to get worse now that he’s gone.

      A LOT WORSE!!!

      It makes me sick to think that we’ll soon be looking back on the likes of Jerry Brown with nostalgia. Remember when we were in the frying pan? Those were the days!

  5. ‘Adult’ ?
    Only on California.

  6. That Governor Moonbeam was the most adult like figure in Sacramento is really saying something. Wouldn’t it be great if Governor Moonbeam were the biggest buffoon in Sacramento instead?

    He isn’t. Still, we shouldn’t forget all the awful things he did, too, some of them starting with his last stint as Attorney General before he became governor again.

    For instance, it was Jerry Brown who initiated the suit against San Bernardino (and all other counties by extension) for not incorporating global warming into their CEQA requirements and EIRs.

    http://blog.aklandlaw.com/2007…..ming-case/

    Because of that, counties and municipalities have had to open up any private development of size for public comment and consideration on the basis of how the development impacts global warming. Once that became a permanent requirement, Brown capitalized on it as governor to torque up the standards and choke off development in California.

    Best of the shitheads but still a shithead.

    1. Yup. Its like saying Mussolini was not as bad of a Socialist as Stalin.

      1. Complete with stupid train jokes.

      2. Especially since he was a Fascist.

    2. This is why I recently suggested some constitutional restrictions to stop these marxists. Which is one of the most civilized ways I can imagine stopping them.

      Elections don’t matter to them.
      They use crooked activist judges to,subvert the will of the voters
      They ignore written laws
      Everything is now a witch hunt if it doesn’t conform to groupthink

      When someone is planning to kill or enslave you, it’s best to do something decisive about it. When the law and the ballot box fail, other measure must be employed to stop them. If lush comes to shove, their rights mean shit to me if mine aren’t first respected, and their lives mean nothing if they are actively working to enslave or kill me.

      Biting about them doesn’t get results. However, I am open to more civilized options if any are available,

      1. ‘Bitching about them’

  7. …Brown achieved it with multiple, unnecessary tax increases?and he signed budgets that set records for spending.

    Every good Reasoner knows you can’t keep budgets under control without lots and lots of tax revenue. It’s the only way.

  8. He’ll be remembered for Linda Ronstadt, sleeping on a mattress on the floor, wanting a California satellite, the high speed train which will never be finished, and two sets of two terms. His father is remembered mostly for the water projects and for being his father. The son will NOT be remembered as the only adult in the room because there have been none in California politics for decades.

    1. You make a very good point, although the same could be said of most big State governments. The High Speed Rail Project is especially egregious. One can only speculate as to when it might be abandoned? Maybe, after it’s completely built and no one shows up to ride it; some politician will then want the operating revenue for some other worthless project?

  9. “Now, what did I do or didn’t do?” he asked. “I did rein in spending. I did?and then that took fortitude against the tendency of the Democratic Party to spend on almost anything that somebody comes up with that, you know, that satisfies all of the key constituencies.”

    That’s the kind of accomplishment that any Republican might tout, albeit Brown achieved it with multiple, unnecessary tax increases?and he signed budgets that set records for spending.

    Huh? You might have to run that one by me again, I’m not drunk enough yet to understand how Brown reined in spending by raising taxes and increasing spending.

    1. Meaning he reined in budget deficits, which is not much of an achievement when the state constitution requires it. There were budget deficits, but they had to be carefully hidden and reasonably small and short-term.

    2. I’m with you, skids. These reason writers are ALWAYS trying to drum up unnecessary sympathy for iconic dems.

  10. Here’s the legacy of that lying piece of shit:
    The Dills Act.
    “California faces a $1 trillion unfunded pension liability and lawmakers focus on foam and plastic straws”
    https://www.ocregister.com/2018/04/06/
    with-california-taxpayers-facing-a-1-
    trillion-unfunded-pension-liability-
    lawmakers-focus-on-foam-and-plastic-straws/

    All else is commentary.

    1. Yet Newsom will be even worse. And their legislature no better.

  11. Brown is likely to be remembered as the last adult in Sacramento?the guy who made sure the books were in balance.

    By what metric are California books in balance?

    1. Balancing the books and building up a rainy day fund is arguably the fundamental job of the governor.

      Oh, the rainy day fund is what will cover the unfunded liabilities of CalPERS. Never mind, all good.

      1. Not hardly! And what about the High Speed Rail …. what will cover that little boondoggle?

    2. “By what metric are California books in balance?”

      Moonbeam had everybody search under the cushions and found enough to pay the minimum on the credit card bill.

  12. Brown gets a lot of grief for letting prisoners out, but it was the courts that essentially ordered it. If it had been me, I would have sent the list of prison inmates to the judge and said: You’re the judge, you decide who should be released! The way it happened, Brown gets the grief when released criminals recommit crimes, but the judge gets to feel all warm and glowy for reducing the prison population without having the shoulder any of the hard decisions.

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