Jerry Brown’s political modus operandi has become well established in the second half of his two-part governorship.
He declares something to be vitally important, then often settles for a half-a-loaf “solution” or an initial gesture that allows him to check it off his political bucket list.
And if the issue seems to require too much heavy political lifting, he quietly ignores it. For instance, Brown declared reform of the cumbersome California Environmental Quality Act to be “the Lord’s work,” but has done virtually nothing.
The list of Brown’s partial accomplishments has a number of items, including public pension reform, but the most important is the state budget.
He took some praiseworthy steps, such as paying down the “wall of debt” that had been erected during years of deficit spending.
Brown also held the expansionist ambitions of fellow Democrats somewhat in check, although general fund spending is up more than one-third over the last four years. And he persuaded voters to temporarily raise taxes, mostly on very high-income taxpayers.
Although the current budget is balanced, its longer-term stability is very much in doubt, and not just because the temporary taxes are due to expire.
While voters passed Brown’s rainy-day fund measure that would gradually build up some reserves, they would provide only brief respite from a severe downturn.
Brown, meanwhile, won’t even attempt to do what must be done to truly stabilize the budget – lower its dependence on taxing unpredictable investment profits of the wealthy.
Tax reform is vital not because the wealthy need relief, but because it’s unhealthy for schools and other major programs to ride a perpetual roller coaster.
The latest example of Brown’s penchant for tokenism is his plan to put more money into maintaining highways, which are deteriorating rapidly due to political and bureaucratic neglect.
He says the state needs to spend $59 billion to catch up on deferred maintenance, and local governments and transit systems say they need another $150 billion.
Brown is proposing, however, to raise just $3.6 billion a year, half of which would go to local roads and transit – an amount that’s probably far too small to prevent further deterioration.
Even so, raising gasoline and diesel fuel taxes, as Brown seeks, would require votes from at least a few Republican legislators and so far, they aren’t biting. GOP leaders say the state should spend some of its current general fund surpluses on roads, which is no solution.
The GOP plan is merely a one-shot injection, would weaken the state’s fiscal stability, and wouldn’t be the stable financing transportation needs.
Brown is willing to settle for something that’s scarcely a down payment, so he can check it off his to-do list, but may not be able to even get that. Meanwhile, our roads and highways continue to deteriorate as we rack up nearly a billion miles of vehicular travel each day.
Better-than-nothing is not much of a legacy.