The biggest surprise in the fiscally conservative budget Gov. Jerry Brown unveiled last week is that anyone should be surprised by it.
Remember “era of limits” or “small is beautiful”? Those were Brown’s themes when he took office as governor for the first time in 1975.
“There is no free lunch,” he said at the time. “This is an era of limits, and we all had better get used to it.”
Borrowing the phrase “small is beautiful” from a 1973 book by British economist E.F. Schumacher, Brown was far from the advocate for liberal spending programs that many of his supporters had hoped for after eight years under Republican Gov. Ronald Reagan.
In fact, The American Conservative magazine declared him to be “much more of a fiscal conservative” than Reagan, and the result produced a $5 billion budget surplus, at the time one of the largest in state history.
To quote the immortal words reportedly once uttered by the great New York Yankees catcher Yogi Berra, Brown’s comments from his budget announcement last Thursday were like déjà vu all over again.
“Prudence is never easy,” said the governor. “When the money’s in, people want to go for it. And we’ve tried to keep it very measured, and that’s really the story and will be the story of the coming year.”
But then, as now, and despite his frugality, Brown was not without big ideas. He became fascinated during his first term, for instance, with outer space and planetary exploration. Among other things, he proposed in 1978 that California launch its own communications satellite.
Now his grand idea is closer to home – the construction of a high-speed rail system connecting Northern and Southern California, a project reminiscent of the major public works projects championed by his father, the late Gov. Pat Brown.
Then, in 1981, he signed legislation authorizing construction of a peripheral canal to deliver Northern California water around the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. The canal was rejected by a voter referendum the following year. Now, he is proposing a pair of tunnels to divert Sacramento River water through the Delta.
Since Republicans are essentially irrelevant in the current Legislature, Brown’s chances of maintaining the reserve fund he wants and achieving his budgetary goals rests with his fellow Democrats.
That could be problematic because Brown historically has developed a reputation for not playing well with others.
Here’s what Democratic Assembly Speaker Bob Moretti had to say about him in 1976 after Brown declared that “creative inaction” is sometimes the best course of action:
“He doesn’t do anything. He calls it creative inaction. I call it sitting on your ass … You’re either an activist governor and have some objectives, or you’re a do-nothing, except you dress it up with some words you learned in a philosophy class somewhere.”
While “creative inaction” may no longer be part of his vocabulary, Democratic legislative leaders still believe Brown is moving way too slowly to restore cuts made in prior budgets for such things as education and various social programs to serve low-income residents.
“We shouldn’t be shy to say that there is room, with this kind of economy and this kind of a budget, to invest and to reinvest in California’s economy and its people,” said Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento.
But while Brown may no longer be quite the philosopher-governor he was in the early days, when he often seemed to delight in Jesuitical debates, he can be both determined and persuasive.
Witness the fact that he’s in a third term as governor and apparently headed for an easy fourth, if he chooses to run. So don’t be surprised if the budget he just proposed is pretty close to the budget he gets when the final votes are counted this summer.
William Endicott is a former deputy managing editor for The Sacramento Bee.