A Tough Love Letter To Jerry Brown

You have unfinished business

Jerry Brown left three destructive legacies from his first term as governor (1975 to 1979):

  1. Determinant Sentencing: This legislation, which Brown signed in 1976, launched California’s incarceration explosion.
  2. Rodda and Dills Acts: These acts, which Brown signed in 1975 and 1977, granted powers to state and school district employees on top of civil service and other rights, turning them into the state’s most powerful political forces. Earlier, Ronald Reagan had signed the Meyers Act endowing local and county employees with similar rights.
  3. Proposition 13 and Subsequent Legislation: By not deploying a surplus to reduce citizen anger over fast-rising property taxes in the inflationary 1970's, Brown contributed to the passage of this 1978 ballot initiative that, when combined with legislation he later signed, consolidated power in Sacramento, eviscerated local authority, and contributed to a housing shortage, boom and bust budgets, service degradation, the nation’s highest state income tax rate, and escalating user fees.

I supported Brown for governor in 2010 in the hope he would address core problems. So far he’s one for three — to his credit, voters have approved incarceration reforms — with 20 months to go.

As Brown himself has noted, power got centralized in Sacramento after Proposition 13 and subsequent legislation. When combined with the political powers granted public employees, consequences today include crowd out of public services, massive debts to retired public employees, and boom-and-bust budgets reliant on capital gains. Because the state gets so much of its revenue from capital gains, California budgets always look rosy during bull markets. But bull markets always end and when they do, it’s always a disaster for California’s budgets. A bull market has accompanied Brown’s return to office but it will someday end and because the state has added more than $100 billion in unfunded retirement liabilities and seven million people to health care entitlement rolls since 2010, the next market decline will produce big deficits, just like 2001 and 2009. Some services — courts, parks, welfare, UC and CSU — have already fallen behind. To his credit Brown got voters to approve a rainy-day fund but it’s tiny compared to the volatility of revenues and the magnitude of health and retirement spending.

At the same time, a housing shortage caused in part by Prop 13 is forcing middle class Californians to other states — increasingly California is a state of rich and poor with fewer and fewer in between — and taxpayers, students and citizens are being starved to feed interests enabled by the Acts.

Brown is talking about running for president again when he should be addressing California’s core problems.

California won’t be fixed until it addresses the consequences of Prop 13 and the Acts with sustainable reforms. Can the state sustainably address housing without addressing fiscal disincentives at the local level to add housing? Can local governments sustainably address infrastructure if they remain encumbered by super majority requirements? Can the state sustainably protect services, taxpayers and fee-payers without leveling the political playing field?

To understand that un-level playing field, you must understand that employees empowered by the Acts are the largest recipients of state, school district and local spending. In contrast, non-employees such as Social Security recipients and health care providers are the largest recipients of federal spending. Thus, similar acts at the federal level would be the equivalent of granting special rights to (say) AARP and the American Medical Association. Also, a common misperception is that states governed by Democrats always grant such rights. That is not the case. Eg, public employees in Terry McAuliffe’s, Tim Kaine’s and Mark Warner’s Virginia don’t have similar rights. Neither do public employees in Bill Clinton’s Arkansas or Jimmy Carter’s Georgia. On the other hand, public employees in Michael Dukakis’s and John Kerry’s Massachusetts and Walter Mondale’s Minnesota do. (Notice a pattern?) While he’s at it, Brown should also lead governance reform at public pension funds, a legacy from another governor (Pete Wilson) that has had enormous destructive consequences.

One last chance for Brown to be transformational.

Jerry Brown won’t remember his conversation with me and my wife in our kitchen in 1989 but I will never forget it. He was then chair of the state Democratic Party for which he was seeking financial support from us. I was reading War and Peace at the time. Prodded by Tolstoy’s rumination on greatness, I asked Brown — who had been and remains a heroic figure to us — whether great figures make history or get in front of popular waves. He said they get in front of waves. I was crestfallen.

I still don’t agree. Abraham Lincoln did not ride a wave. He courageously used his office to address the most core of matters. Jerry Brown hasn’t been the transformational political leader he should be, whether as governor for 14 years or mayor of Oakland for eight years. Yet few have greater political skill. California voters have passed several controversial reforms in recent years, including Independent Redistricting, Top Two Primary, Term Limit Extension and Majority Vote for Budgets. They can be persuaded — especially by an extraordinarily persuasive and popular politician.

There’s no time to lose. If Brown leaves office in January 2019 without addressing these issues, then students, citizens, middle class Californians and taxpayers will be more vulnerable than ever. C’mon Jerry. If anyone can do it, it’s you.

Lecturer at Stanford University and president of Govern For California