It may be news to many of us living here, but California — according to a recent Newsweek issue — apparently no longer faces intractable budgetary, debt, infrastructure, business, tax, poverty, and regulatory problems. The state has been “saved” and its savior is none other than its third-term governor, Jerry Brown.
The magazine’s cover story, “How Jerry Brown Quietly Saved California,” recounts the governor’s political career against the backdrop of the current presidential race. The writer interviews an analyst who laments that the 78-year-old governor isn’t 10 years younger. Then Brown would be poised to take California’s miracle to the nation. (And you were lamenting a Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton presidency…)
“While his cloistered days are long gone, forays into Zen Buddhism and Mother Teresa’s India have reminded Brown about the impermanence of earthly things,” wrote the lengthy puff piece. “Beyond informing his interior decorating, Brown’s intellectual infinity for austerity has helped him pull the state out of a fiscal canyon about $27 billion deep.”
Furthermore, the article explains, Brown has turned California from the equivalent of decrepit Greece, “which was then in the midst of a protracted meltdown,” to economically booming Germany, “a smoothly functioning social democracy that couples technological avant-gardism with liberal social norms and fiscal restraint.”
Just as I had sworn off writing about Brown for a while, this piece — discussed widely and even referenced by the Los Angeles Times — cries out for a rebuttal. I’m no Brown hater. He’s a fascinating character whose recent legacy isn’t entirely bad. But the main thing the governor accomplished (with the help of a rebounding economy and a couple voter-approved initiatives) is to derail a burgeoning reform movement that offered some hope of addressing the state’s fundamental problems.
In my 18 years in California, the most public optimism I’ve sensed about the state’s future wasn’t when Arnold Schwarzenegger bounced the aptly named “Gray” Davis from the governorship in 2003. Most people were angry at the budget mess and smitten by the Terminator’s celebrity, but I never sensed great hope in long-lasting reform. It was more like relief the rolling blackouts (from the electricity crisis) might end and the massive deficits might go away.
The greatest time of optimism actually coincided with Brown’s inauguration to his third term, although it had little to do with his election. Sure, liberals were happy a quirky, lefty governor would be working with overwhelming Democratic legislative majorities. But many of us non-liberals were excited for decidedly different reasons.
The hopefulness stemmed, counterintuitively, from the dire conditions the state faced at the time. California had a massive general-fund budget deficit. Its unfunded liabilities, to pay for a decade-long spree of retroactive pension increases for public employees, had become front-page news, an amazing feat given the “eyes glazing over” nature of the topic.
Reformers weren’t joyful that California was being pronounced a “failed state.” But they naively believed the long-awaited “day of reckoning” was at hand. They figured, eventually, California’s public-sector-enriching, tax-raising, regulation-happy politics would hit the wall, and there’d be no other choice but to pass meaningful reform. Boy, did we misjudge that one.
There was some legitimate reason for the headiness. Two Democratic-majority cities (San Jose and San Diego) soon passed serious pension-reform initiatives with nearly 70-percent “yes” votes. There also was hope various court decisions would put an end to the dreaded California Rule, which forbade public agencies from ever reducing pension benefits — even going forward. There was chatter about education reform and other matters. There were some serious Democrats on board this reform agenda, a necessity in this Democratic-dominated state.
“[T]he state that was once held up as the epitome of the boundless opportunities of America has collapsed,” reported the Guardian in 2009. The British newspaper told stories of budget cuts, 12-percent unemployment rates, a soaring deficit, a busted housing bubble. It was helpful to the reform movement that such “failed state” pronouncements came from publications across the political spectrum.
But then the crisis evaporated. Voters in 2010 gave the Legislature the ability to pass budgets with a simple majority, thus helping to end an annual budget crisis in which the Republican minority had some political clout. And Brown used his political capital to convince voters in 2012 to increase sales and income taxes significantly. Now, instead of looking at the failed state, mainstream publications are lauding our supposedly successful state.
“Long derided for its ‘fruit-and-nuts’ politics, California is leading the way in envisioning a political system that can actually get things done,” the Huffington Post breathlessly reported in January. Expect more of this as we head into a national political race. California will be proof, we’ll be told, that Democratic policies are working.
It’s nonsense, of course. The stingy Brown shtick has some truth to it. At budget press conferences, Brown always points to a chart showing that budget years with deficits far exceed those years with surpluses. He has been a bulwark against the Democratic Legislature’s endless desire to create costly new permanent programs to avoid those deficits. “Some on California’s vociferous left have called on the stingy governor to spend more on social programs that might benefit the young, the sick, the homeless and the poor,” Newsweek notes.
But his latest budget broke spending records with its $123-billion general fund. He’s devoted to a $15-billion-plus tunnel project in the Delta and a $68-billion-plus bullet train that is turning into a ridiculous boondoggle. He wants to spend more — lots more — but wants to assure the state can afford it. That’s something, especially in this state, but it’s ultimately not very much.
Unfortunately, that approach — and the resulting budgetary good news — helped to put the end to the reform movement by forcing “crisis” stories off the front pages. Even though nothing fundamentally changed, California no longer was viewed as a failed state. With coffers flush, no one wanted to talk about pension liabilities. More public employees than ever were joining the $100,000 club and enriching themselves thanks to spiking schemes and disability games. But the media coverage of them trickled away.
Unfunded liabilities are now higher than ever. We’re still the most impoverished state in the nation, based on the Census Bureau’s cost-of-living based data. The 24/7 Wall Street blog publishes its list of U.S. cities with the most grinding poverty. Four of 11 are in California. “California’s lawsuit climate ranks among worst in country, again,” reports the Voice of OC. Chief Executive magazine put California at No. 50 for business climate. Data show a steady stream of businesses and wealthier residents leaving because of tax and regulatory issues. The state’s schools and infrastructure are atrocious.
The goal here isn’t to blame Brown for problems caused by myriad legislators and governors. But it’s certainly silly to portray him as California’s savior. The state still is desperately in need of saving, even if its leadership — and the national media — don’t know it yet.