Since the 1970s, when “Moonbeam” first was elected governor, commentators, including this one, have remarked on his “canoe theory” of politics. You paddle a little to the left and a little to the right. Back then, there was more merit to Brown’s maxim, given that he stood up for tax-limiting Proposition 13 after its passage even though he opposed it on the ballot. Brown also enforced the death penalty even though he was personally opposed to it.
Those were the rightward paddles. But in his latest two terms as governor, Brown has paddled mainly to the left and then to the left some more, on everything from taxes to “cap and trade” to union issues. His rightward “paddles” have been largely rhetorical. The governor, say, signs budget deals that expand spending to record levels, then gives a nice lecture about not overspending — and avoiding the creation of new programs because of fears of recession.
That was usually enough to mollify Republicans, who were always thankful that he didn’t make things even worse. Indeed, an argument that some Republican legislators made when they supported the recent expansion of the cap-and-trade system was that if they didn’t support it the governor would impose on businesses a regulatory system that was even more heavy handed.
Now that the legislative session is over and Brown has completed all his bill signings and vetoes, it’s clear that the canoe theory really is about paddling to the left over and over — but with that occasional, albeit much appreciated paddle to the right. Overall, he OK’d 859 of 977 bills that passed out of the legislature, which means that 88 percent of this far-left Legislature’s priorities have become law.
For instance, Brown signed a law turning California into a sanctuary state, whereby police cannot hold people purely for immigration violations. It also limits state and local officials from cooperating with federal immigration authorities. As noted, he extended the costly cap-and-trade system. He signed a massive gas-tax increase. He signed a housing package that expands union wage requirements and funds more subsidized housing.
Brown signed the New Parent Leave Act, which now requires small businesses to allow their employees to take 12 weeks of unpaid (but still costly) leave for pregnancy and other family related matters. It used to apply to companies with 50 or more employees but now applies to those with 20 or more. (It reminds me of U.S. Rep. Tom McClintock’s quip that California is still the best place to have a small business — the key is starting out with a large one.)
Brown signed a bill that requires schools to provide free tampons to low-income students. He signed one that forbids employers from asking applicants for their salary history, which was pitched as a way to clamp down on gender discrimination. He signed one to provide diaper subsidies to the poor, and another that provides a free first year of community college — something that will only make it that much harder for serious students to get classes in the overcrowded community college system.
He signed a law allowing for gender-neutral driver’s licenses and another one that bans teachers from carrying firearms at schools. He signed a law limiting the open carry of firearms. He signed a drug-pricing transparency law that the pharmaceutical industry believes will set the stage for price controls.
There’s not much here for conservatives and libertarians to celebrate, but he did include a few notable rightward paddles as the signing deadline neared.
Brown vetoed a particularly noxious union-backed bill designed to force private workers in the private, nonsubsidized home-care industry to provide the state with their personal information (home address, cellphone number, email) and explicitly requiring the state to make that information available to union organizers. Brown vetoed the bill for the right reason, arguing in his veto message that he is “concerned about now releasing the personal information of these home care aides.”
Brown vetoed some ridiculous Democratic posturing — the measure that would have required presidential candidates to release their taxes in order to be on presidential ballot. Indeed, Brown has been a calm voice when it comes to the Legislature’s frequent forays into Trump-spite, so it’s not that surprising that he nixed this flagrant example of it.
Brown also vetoed a nanny-ish bill that would have placed a driving curfew on people aged 18 to 21. “Eighteen-year-olds are eligible to enlist in the military, vote in national, state and local elections, enter into contracts and buy their own car,” he wrote in his veto message. It’s always nice to hear some common sense, even from a man whose rhetoric frequently seems unhinged on environmental issues.
He vetoed a bill that would have required private companies to produce detailed reports about disparities in wages between men and women — something that no doubt would have been used as the basis of myriad discrimination lawsuits. He vetoed another one that would have required public schools to provide paid maternity leave to employees.
Most satisfying, perhaps, was Brown’s veto of Senate Bill 169, which “would have codified the Obama-era Education Department’s guidance for how college campuses should deal with sexual misconduct,” as Reason summarized it. This is the old Brown, who would routinely stick up for some grand idea such as due process for the accused.
His veto statement was wonderful: “Since this law was enacted, however, thoughtful legal minds have increasingly questioned whether federal and state actions to prevent and redress sexual harassment and assault — well-intentioned as they are — have also unintentionally resulted in some colleges’ failure to uphold due process for accused students.”
But that’s as good as it gets. Of course, the legislative session produced little that was positive. It’s too much to ask for California lawmakers to pass serious reform bills to deal with government debt. The most we can expect is the vetoing of the Legislature’s worst excesses. And with Brown’s final term coming to a close, and lefty Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom the odds-on favorite to win, Californians might look back on these days with nostalgia.
Steven Greenhut is Western region director for the R Street Institute. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.