Political Hay

California’s Brown Out

The young Jerry Brown would be doing a much better job.

By 3.18.11

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These days, Edmund Gerald (Jerry) Brown Jr. probably wishes he was anything other than California's once and future governor. The state's intractable fiscal and educational woes, along with its dysfunctional political culture, all but assure that his third term in office will be even harder than his time presiding over Golden State government 29 years ago.

Brown isn't getting much help from either fellow state officials or his political allies to shore up $26 billion in budget shortfalls for this and the upcoming fiscal year. Brown needs a two-thirds support from the state legislature for approval of his request to ask voters to approve $12 billion in tax extensions and new hikes. But Republicans refuse to lend their votes (and their political careers) to approve it. While Brown and his fellow Democrats can put the plan on the ballot under the guise of extending earlier tax increases, they are no more willing to risk political suicide than their GOP counterparts.

Meanwhile Brown's fellow Democrats are balking at the governor's plan to cut $12 billion in spending. Assembly and Senate Democratic leaders voted down his plan to shut down the state's coterie of urban redevelopment agencies (which has long provided welfare to real estate developers at the expense of everyone else). University of California and California State University students -- many of whom come from comfortable middle class homes -- are protesting Brown's move to cut $1 billion from the university budgets. Back-benchers accuse Brown of balancing the budgets on the backs of the poor. Declared Assemblywoman Noreen Evans in the California Progress Report: "The sacrifice is almost exclusively being asked of our children and grandchildren."

The only ones to praise Brown so far are public sector unions such as the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees and the state's two largest teachers' unions, who backed his successful return to high office to the tune of $1.6 million, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics. That's because Brown's proposed cuts have largely shielded state workers under collective bargaining from losing jobs. But this will not last for long. Brown has already declared that without the tax hikes, he would cut spending by 27 percent. Hard-core unionists, annoyed over Brown's other cuts, are spoiling for a fight with both Brown and their own union leaders.

Brown isn't the only new governor charged with dealing with fiscal reckoning after decades of short- and long-term profligacy. But unlike governors such as Scott Walker in Wisconsin and even fellow political legatee Andrew Cuomo in New York, Brown has a lot less flexibility in dealing with the problems. Decades of fecklessness on nearly all fronts has left the Golden State in shambles. Meanwhile Brown's own allegiances to public sector unions -- including the state's National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers locals -- means that he's not even attempting smart moves in areas that could bolster California's future for the long run.

Certainly this isn't the first time Brown has steered the state through periods of fiscal pain. As California's governor during the inflation and property tax revolt times of the 1970s, he was as well known for eschewing state limousines, occasionally cutting budgets and building up a $5 billion surplus, as for dating singer Linda Ronstadt, touting alternative energy schemes, and oddball statements that led him to be nicknamed Governor Moonbeam. He even managed to get the endorsement of famed tax reformer Howard Jarvis for a second term in 1978 after he responded to the passage of Proposition 13 with a string of budget cuts and property tax relief.

But it was easy to play the role of frugal liberal. His father, the legendary Pat Brown, and future president Ronald Reagan did most of the tax-and-spending, including greatly expanding the state's higher education and highway systems. More importantly, the Golden State was in its economic and fiscal heyday; steady migration from the East Coast, the rise of Silicon Valley, a flourishing oil sector, and an aerospace sector fueled by federal contracts helped overcome damage to the state from the byzantine structure of state and local governments, and feckless voter referendums.

This time around, Brown has taken back the reins after three decades of governors and legislatures more-consumed by dysfunction than good fiscal stewardship. Brown's immediate successor George Deukmejian presided over a doubling of the state budget. During the 1990s, as Brown went from being state Democratic Party boss to a presidential bid to becoming mayor of Oakland, then-Gov. Pete Wilson and longtime state Assembly Speaker Willie Brown were engaged in their own hijinks, fiscal and otherwise.

Economic and fiscal conditions in the Golden State have taken a turn for the worse over the past 12 years as the brief-yet-disastrous gubernatorial tenure of Gray Davis was followed by the longer (and even worse) reign of Arnold Schwarzenegger. While the governors sparred with legislators over budgets and missed deadlines to pass them, the fiscal profligacy continued unabated. State spending increased by 77 percent between the 1999-2000 and 2008-2009 fiscal years before the current economic malaise finally forced state leaders to cut spending. In that same time, voters passed referendums -- from building new schools to costly high-speed rail projects -- that will cost them $113 billion in principle and interest over the next three decades.

Brown himself cannot escape blame for the state's current predicament; some of the problems in fact date to his previous tenure. One of his most-damaging moves came just after the passage of Prop. 13 in 1978 when he began pouring more state dollars into local governments in order to stave off reductions in property tax revenue. With the state stepping in to subsidize local government (and later, to take on such matters as housing jail inmates), municipalities began exercising even less restraint than they did during the years before property tax relief. The effort (along with Prop. 13, environmental rules and lawsuits by Native American tribes) also helped make California's housing market more expensive by shifting the dominant source of revenue for local governments from property taxes to sales taxes; to get more of that cash, municipalities enacted land use rules to encourage the development of shopping malls and car dealerships.

This time around, Brown has wrangle with more than just the state's fiscal problems. Decades of deal making between NEA and other public-sector unions, state governments, school districts, and municipalities has led to $516 billion in pension deficits and unfunded retiree healthcare benefits, according to the Pew Center on the States. But save for a move by the state's Teachers Retirement System to reduce its inflated rate of return by a quarter of a percent, little is actually being done to address the growing crisis. Within the past month, CalSTRS, along with the gargantuan California Public Employees Retirement System, chastised a state commission for daring to argue that the state should actually do something about it. Brown isn't exactly stepping up to the plate to address it.

But Brown is tearing down the one thing immediate predecessor Schwarzenegger and the state legislature managed to get right: Reforming the state's woeful public schools. In January, the governor tossed out seven of the eleven members of the state board of education -- including Ted Mitchell, the founder of school reform vanguard NewSchools Venture Fund, and Ben Austin, who helped pass the nation's first Parent Trigger law -- and replaced them with a group that included a lobbyist for the NEA's California local.

Since then, the board has sat pat as an effort to use the state's Parent Trigger law -- an effort in Compton to turn McKinley Elementary School into a charter -- has been obstructed by the school district and its AFT local. This has set back efforts to give parents a dominant role in overhauling (or shutting down) the state's failure mills and improve the low quality of its teachers and principals. None of Brown's plans address the byzantine structure of state boards, school districts, county agencies and other entities that have long done a poor job of providing education to the state's students, which would actually save money for taxpayers.

Given the problems at hand, Brown needs to do more than just offer Solomonic solutions for the state's fiscal crisis. He could easily take a page from Walker, Cuomo, or even Chris Christie in New Jersey and stare down the state's political ancien régime. Or maybe, he could just dust off his old playbook and act like Jerry Brown circa 1976. 

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About the Author

RiShawn Biddle the editor of Dropout Nation , is co-author of A Byte at the Apple: Rethinking Education Data for the Post-NCLB EraHe can be followed at Twitter.com/dropoutnation.