Sixty years ago next Tuesday, Edmund G. “Pat” Brown was sworn in as governor of California, inaugurating a family/state epic that will conclude — also next Tuesday — when his son Jerry’s fourth term as governor comes to an end. What Pat knew instinctively, Edmund G. “Jerry” Brown Jr. has haltingly and selectively come around to: building and maintaining a great state requires a smart — and massive — commitment of public funds.
Pat’s tenure got off to a roaring start: In its first year, his master plan for higher education, which led to the landmark expansion of the state’s public universities and colleges, was enacted, and at his insistence, state taxes were raised on high-income Californians to fund programs that preceded President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society by six years.
Well before the federal government embraced the cause of civil rights, Pat’s California also banned discrimination in employment and housing. And to ensure the state’s continuing growth, Pat persuaded the Legislature to build the aqueducts that bring water from the north to the south.
Pat had seen the impact that federal outlays for shipbuilding during World War II and aerospace during the Cold War had on building a majority middle class in California. He bolstered those efforts with state spending on infrastructure and on mass higher education.
Jerry never quite shared his father’s uncluttered belief in the merits of public outlays. That was partly due to Jerry’s more skeptical disposition, and to his need — painfully obvious during his first go-round as governor — to separate himself from his father. But it also reflected a broader shift among many leading Democrats of his generation.
Like a number of Democrats raised in the 1940s and ’50s who first won major office in the 1970s, such as Colorado’s Gary Hart and Massachusetts’ Paul Tsongas, Jerry made clear he was a new breed of Democrat. In his first go-round as governor, he championed cultural liberalism and environmentalism and opposed the kind of expansive fiscal policies and big government projects that his father had pushed through.
Pat’s progressive taxes continued to swell the state’s treasury, however, while Jerry’s skepticism about the government’s ability to spend those dollars wisely meant that by 1978, the state was sitting on about $5 billion in unexpended funds — the equivalent of $20 billion today. Unfortunately, 1978 was also a year of rocketing inflation in property values and property taxes. Jerry resisted devoting the state surplus either to public purposes (for instance, he deliberately underfunded state colleges and universities) or to income tax rebates that would have offset the property tax hikes. Infuriated voters responded by passing the tax-slashing Proposition 13.
Jerry opposed 13, but lukewarmly. When the measure passed, he not only embraced it but went so far as to back a proposed amendment to the federal Constitution banning deficit spending. At that point, he crossed the line separating suppleness from spinelessness.
But Jerry’s politics, unlike his father’s, have been a work in progress. When he ran for president in 1992, he campaigned as a pro-labor populist calling for more trade protections, but, characteristically, offsetting that by demanding a shift to flat, rather than progressive, tax rates. Twenty years later, in the defining act of his now almost-completed third and fourth terms as governor, he successfully campaigned to raise taxes on high-income Californians, which brought the state’s budget from deficit to surplus, and enabled California to begin investing in its future again.
By the time of Jerry returned to the governorship, though, federal spending on arms and aerospace had been decimated by the Cold War’s end, and civilian manufacturing had been offshored, automated or simply shuttered. In recent years, the private sector has been unwilling or unable to build affordable housing. All of this has increased the burden on the state to take up the investment slack, in ways that improve rather than damage the environment.
In response, Jerry has morphed from a post-New Deal Democrat to a prematurely Green New Deal one. Hence his insistence on building high-speed rail — against high odds — bringing the Brown legacy full circle. High-speed rail is exactly the kind of project his father would have initiated had the clean technology and the concern about auto emissions been around in 1959.
Come Tuesday, California will have to continue the Brown legacy without a member of the family at the helm. Pat’s commitment to education needs continual updating, a tradition that Gov.-elect Gavin’s Newsom’s proposal to fund pre-K schooling would renew. And it seems certain the state will require greater taxpayer investment in affordable housing as well.
Six decades after Pat swept into office, his insight that investing public funds is the key to California’s future — a belief that Jerry only partially and ambivalently came to share — is as crucial as it’s ever been.
Harold Meyerson is executive editor of the American Prospect and a contributing writer to Opinion.
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