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Jerry Brown is getting too much credit for fixing California

Is California Gov. Jerry Brown cruising to reelection because he's just so damn awesome?
Is California Gov. Jerry Brown cruising to reelection because he's just so damn awesome?
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

It's not too difficult to explain why the Republican candidate California governor, Neel Kashkari, is pulling desperate stunts like running an ad equating incumbent Governor Jerry Brown's education policies with letting a child drown in a pool. Kashkari's running 20 points behind, and a poll last month found that only 25 percent of likely voters could correctly identify him as the Republican candidate.

The national press, particularly on the left, has settled on a simple explanation for why this is the case: Jerry Brown is just a ridiculously awesome governor. Yeah, it's a Democratic state, and yeah, Kashkari is best known for running one of the least popular government programs in recent memory, but the real story is that Brown took a totally dysfunctional state government that was billions of dollars in the hole and used his decades of experience in California politics (including his time as governor from 1975 to 1983) to turn it around.

"California today is again a state, as it has not been for decades, where the future that liberals hope will be America’s is happening first," Harold Meyerson wrote in a rapturous American Prospect feature on Brown's third term. "And Jerry Brown, for all his skepticism about politics, government, and liberalism, is leading it there."

In a more measured but still quite positive Atlantic profile, James Fallows concluded, "A country conditioned to dismiss the skills of deal making, persuasion, and sheer immersion in politics can learn a great deal from what he has achieved."

Meyerson and Fallows aren't wrong that California's fiscal house is in order today in a way it wasn't in the slightest when Brown took office. But Brown's contribution involved adopting an austerity program which most liberals would find objectionable in at least some particulars, the tax increases that helped weren't solely his doing, and he's left enough work undone that there's a real danger the state will fall back into old patterns once he's gone.

Brown's spending cuts

california prison crowded

Brown wanted to cut spending on prisons, but it's higher now than it was when he took office. (Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images News)

Now that Brown has balanced the budget, Meyerson writes, "Legislators no longer have to make further cuts to programs they support; no more teachers will be laid off for lack of funds; tuition at the University of California and state colleges will cease its dizzying ascent."

Maybe so. But California only got to that point because Brown implemented serious budget cuts, often resisted fiercely by legislative Democrats.

Fallows praises one cut — to municipal "redevelopment agencies," which critics argued were used by cities as corrupt slush funds — but most of the changes were more than benign waste-cutting measures. Brown reached a deal on welfare cuts that required recipients to meet work requirements within two years rather than four. In 2011, he cut Medicaid provider payments by 10 percent, which could have the effect of reducing the already low number of doctors and nurses who see low-income patients. And all the while he, despite proposing cuts, wound up increasing spending on prisons, and only started early releases of nonviolent inmates when a court made him. As is so often the case, the budget cuts wound up falling disproportionately on the state's poor.

This is a strange record to cast as a triumph of liberal ideals.

As Brown told PBS's Spencer Michels, "I cut $3 for every dollar that we got in taxes from the Proposition 30 [which raised taxes, mostly on high earners]. We cut the universities 25 percent. We cut child care. We cut all the good programs, because government doesn’t do that many bad things."

During Brown's first stint as governor, he proclaimed an "era of limits," urging restraint in budgets and embracing the anti-tax Proposition 13 after its passage by voters. "His budgets for the universities and for social benefits were no more generous than Reagan’s, and sometimes even less so," Meyerson recalls. In the run-up to his 1980 presidential bid (the second of three), he even proposed a constitutional convention to add a balanced budget amendment to the US Constitution. Meyerson concludes that Brown has changed. But his social spending suggests this time isn't so different after all.

It's interesting that Brown has avoided the kind of liberal backlash that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has provoked. This is not totally inexplicable. Brown raised taxes on rich people, while Cuomo successfully fought against tax increases for the rich and for cuts in the corporate and estate taxes. Cuomo has made a point of antagonizing his state's teachers unions, while Brown appealed a court decision declaring teacher tenure unconstitutional in California. But when it comes to programs that help the poor, the two aren't that different.

About those tax hikes…

proposition 30 jerry brown

Jerry Brown speaks at a pro-Proposition 30 rally on November 5, 2012. (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

On the revenue side, Brown fought for Proposition 30, a successful 2012 ballot initiative that raises income taxes on high earners for a limited period of time, along with a number of smaller revenue-raisers. Recent positive Brown profiles tend, unsurprisingly, to emphasize his campaigning for the measure.

"Everyone I asked said that Brown’s personal stumping for the measure made the difference in its relatively easy win," Fallows writes. Brown did make a difference, and his profilers are right to note it.

But David Dayen, one of the best writers on California politics I know, notes that, "Contrary to the Great Man theory of politics … liberal organizations led California’s comeback, by taking away the tools empowering minority Republicans."

A ballot initiative eliminating a two-thirds requirement for passing budgets passed in 2010, before Brown was governor. The initiative was helped by an online voter registration campaign enabled by legislation Brown signed, but was not the main driving force behind. Most significantly, Brown was forced by progressive advocacy groups to change the content of Proposition 30.

"His initial package included higher sales taxes, as well as income tax hikes that dipped down to those making $250,000 a year. A coalition of progressive groups and the California Federation of Teachers didn’t feel the package could succeed at the ballot box," Dayen writes. "They organized an ad hoc coalition, and armed themselves with polling data showing a more plausible path to get voters to agree to revenue increases and break the long-standing tax revolt."

The coalition didn't get everything they asked for. A small sales tax increase remained, for instance. But Brown changed the initiative significantly in response, arguably helping its prospects. He deserves credit for his role in the proposition, but he was more of a vessel for a broader current of left-of-center ideas than the driving force behind them.

Why it could all fall apart

california assembly fight

Assemblyman Warren Furutani, D-Gardena, is held back by Assemblymen, from left to right, Manuel Perez, D-Coachella, Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo and Richard Gordon, D-Menlo Park, as he exchanges words with Assemblyman Donald Wagner, R-Irvine, far left, on Wednesday, June 15, 2011, in Sacramento, California. (Hector Amezcua/Sacramento Bee/MCT via Getty Images)

Brown's biggest failing, however, has less to do with ideology than the absence of any real plan to prevent future fiscal calamities. California's crisis was caused, ultimately, by an overabundance of veto points that combine to make it just too hard to pass budgets. Until 2010, budgets needed supermajority approval. Tax increases still do, because of 1978's Proposition 13. Other ballot propositions can impose fiscal constraints on the legislature that it can't easily undo, and even apart from the two-thirds requirement, Proposition 13 makes it extremely difficult to increase property tax revenue, normally a workhorse of state and local government.

Brown got around these problems via propositions of his own. But Proposition 30 is a temporary measure. What's more, in all likelihood another recession will one day hit and cause a shock to the state's revenues as highly progressive income taxes are especially vulnerable to the ups and downs of the business cycle. Because of the state's balanced budget requirement, that will force tax hikes or spending cuts, and because of the above factors, the bias will continue to be toward spending cuts. Even if there isn't a recession, revenues coming from the ongoing tech boom could shrink if that industry takes a turn for the worse, also necessitating a readjustment.

This is fixable. A proposition could remove the two-thirds tax hike majority. A proposition could repeal the rest of Proposition 13. After those are all done, a proposition could limit the proposition process so as to allow the legislature the same flexibility legislatures have in most states. If it wanted to get really exotic, the state could adopt a Nebraska-style unicameral legislature, or even a Canadian province-style parliamentary government. All of these, to varying degrees, would help solve the fundamental structural issues.

Brown has chosen not to push for any of these changes. It might be that his timidity is warranted, and realistically Californians will never vote to part with Proposition 13 or the proposition process.

"When I asked him whether, instead of sponsoring Prop 30 to close the budget gap, he had considered challenging the entire destructive proposition system, he wasn’t interested in even talking about it," Fallows writes. "'That’d be tough,' he said. 'You work in the real world.'"

Indeed you do. But Brown is a popular governor heading into what will almost certainly be his last term in public office. He has little to lose from pushing hard for structural reforms, and the state has a lot to gain. But so far, he's done nothing, focusing on the short-term while the fundamentals remain grim.

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