Capitol Journal: It’s an easy A for Jerry Brown in his final two terms as governor of California

Gov. Jerry Brown listens to a question during an appearance at the Sacramento Press Club on Tuesday. Brown, a Democrat, will leave office Jan. 7 after serving a record four terms.
Gov. Jerry Brown listens to a question during an appearance at the Sacramento Press Club on Tuesday. Brown, a Democrat, will leave office Jan. 7 after serving a record four terms.
(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

It’s time to grade Gov. Jerry Brown, who’s packing his thousands of books and leaving the Capitol campus for good.

No need to think twice. He earned an A for his final two terms as governor.

For his 34 years in five elective offices, including a record 16 as governor? He deserves an A for all that too. Give it to him for durability alone.

“Perhaps Gov. Jerry Brown’s most important contribution…was to restore public confidence in state government,” Mark Baldassare, president of the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California, wrote last week.


Baldassare, who’s also the policy institute’s pollster, bases that glowing praise on approval ratings for Brown and the Legislature, and also the citizens’ view that the state is headed in the right direction.

His latest poll shows 51% of California adults approving of Brown’s job performance, with only 31% disapproving. That’s 10 points higher than when he returned to the governor’s mansion in 2011.

Brown’s job rating has never slipped below 47%, Baldassare says, despite tax increases and controversies over such heated issues as the bullet train and state protections for immigrants living here illegally. The Legislature’s approval rating is 47%, up from the teens several years ago.

“Perhaps the Legislature rode the coattails of Brown’s success,” Baldassare writes. “Brown and the Legislature took the drama out of the annual budget process.”

That’s giving the governor and the Legislature way too much credit in my view.

What finally ended summer budget gridlock in Sacramento was voter passage of a 2010 ballot measure. It reduced a two-thirds legislative vote requirement for budget passage to a simple majority. That, more than anything else, polished the Legislature’s tarnished image and helped Brown succeed.

Here are some things Brown did in his last two terms:

— Budget: When he came to office, the state budget was bleeding $27 billion in red ink, a deficit caused by the recession. Brown leaves with a projected $15-billion surplus, plus a $14.5-billion rainy day reserve.


Credit three things: The national economic rebound, Brown’s keeping Democratic spenders in check and his persuading voters to greatly increase income taxes on the wealthy. That tax hike is expected to generate $8.3 billion this fiscal year.

What California really needs is to update its tax system, which is way too reliant on rich people’s incomes. When the inevitable recession hits, their capital gains nosedive and state revenue dwindles. Crucial state programs are whacked. To reduce the revenue volatility, we need to flatten the income tax and extend the sales tax to certain services, such as legal.

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Brown dismissed that notion as politically impractical in an interview last week.

“Put the ‘Skelton tax’ on the ballot and it’d be a loser,” he told me. He scoffed at the idea of telling the middle class it would have to pay higher income taxes in order to lower levies on the rich “so there’ll be less volatility in the tax system.”

It wouldn’t need to be done that way, but there was no interest by Brown in trying.

— Climate change: Brown unquestionably has been a world leader in trying to combat global warming by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. For example, he signed legislation to reduce petroleum use in vehicles 50% by 2030.

— Highways: He maneuvered legislative passage of a gas tax increase to raise $5 billion a year for highway repairs and other transportation improvements. Then he led the successful fight against a repeal effort on the November ballot.


— School funding: He pushed through legislation changing the K-12 spending formula to provide extra money for low-income students and English learners.

— Prisons: Under orders from three liberal federal judges, Brown greatly reduced the state prison population by locking up more criminals in county jails. Sentences also were lowered.

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Brown fought the judges, but acknowledges that their intervention was “a very good thing. Without them, there’d be massive overcrowding.

“That’s proof of the wisdom of separation of powers,” he added. “The judiciary can stop a state from doing what it wants.”


Brown has been a lifelong opponent of the death penalty. But when there were ballot measures in 2012 and 2016 to abolish capital punishment, he didn’t endorse either and they lost. I asked him why at a Sacramento Press Club luncheon last week.

“The essence of leadership is knowing when to hold and when to fold, when to move forward and when to stay still,” he answered. “I’ve focused on reforming criminal justice.”

What Brown didn’t say was that in 2012 his “soak the rich” tax hike was on the ballot, and in 2016 he was pushing a proposition to overhaul criminal sentencing. He figured that wading into the death penalty fight might jeopardize his ballot propositions.

Brown’s a skilled political practitioner and as feisty at age 80 as he was when he first became governor at 36.

Asked at the press club about the fate of his embattled bullet train and Delta twin-tunnel projects after he’s gone, Brown answered without hesitation: “They will be built.” Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom wants to scale back both projects.

I asked Brown how the $77-billion bullet train — way over budget and far behind schedule — could possibly be paid for. “Easy,” he said: The federal government must kick in.


And the $17-billion water tunnels?

“Listen, George, I know you don’t like the tunnels,” he said. “But without the tunnels the Delta will die.”

It may die as a plumbing fixture, but not as a recreational haven and the largest estuary on the West Coast, a vital producer of salmon and steelhead.

There are Brown policies many of us don’t like. But he fully participated in the democratic process rather than use his family connections and talent to make a mint in the private sector.

He enjoyed public service and making a difference, instead of just complaining. For the civic contribution alone, he deserves an A.

And the unfailing entertainment will be missed.

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