Jerry Brown doesn’t want to talk about his legacy.
“First of all, I don’t have a legacy. I don’t know what a legacy is,” Brown, who previously served as governor from 1975 to 1983, told a TV reporter at a recent climate event. “That is a media construct that seems to be in the minds of certain media types as the central organizing principle of government activity. But it’s not my central organizing principle. I do what I’m doing because this is what I think is important work to do.”
Whether or not he wants to engage in the surrounding discussion, Brown’s legacy is now closely tied to two signature projects: his plan to build two massive water tunnels through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and a high-speed rail system to shuttle passengers across California.
But as the last few months have laid bare, an undeniable element of his history-making second stint has been his ability to get the Legislature to move on difficult issues in exchange for some of their top priorities. Brown and legislative leaders helped muscle through late Monday an extension of the state’s cap-and-trade system to reduce emissions from greenhouse gases after he told lawmakers it was the most important vote of their lives. Before, Brown helped will into law a major tax and fee package to pay for road repairs.
As the victories mount, however, so do questions about whether the termed-out governor is putting Democrats representing marginal districts in a difficult spot come next year’s elections.
While eight Republicans supported the bill this week, those who opposed it focused on its potential to raise gas prices, just as the existing cap-and-trade program has done. The deal is “for the elites, not everyday Californians, to pay for their pet projects,” argued Sen. Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber. A portion of the revenue pays for the bullet train backed by Brown and voters.
Monday’s vote came less than four months after Brown and leaders struck deals with wavering lawmakers to win support for a sweeping $52 billion transportation plan that will raise gas taxes and vehicle registration fees. Senate Bill 1 will increase the gas tax by 12 cents a gallon on Nov. 1 and hike the diesel tax by 20 cents per gallon. The higher registration fees kick in for motorists on Jan. 1.
Dave Gilliard, a Republican consultant, predicts that the gas tax and cap-and-trade measures will give Republicans a potent election issue.
“A lot of this has to do with Brown’s legacy. He wants to go down as the guy who fought global warming and built the bullet train. And he’s going to the mat to make it happen,” Gilliard said. “If I was a Democrat in a Central Valley district, or a Democrat in an Orange County district, I would be very wary of these votes.”
Gilliard said the gas tax polling he’s seen shows a level of distaste unlike any other issue in years. “And it’s not Republicans I am polling. It’s independents and Democrats.”
Democrats’ dominance in California makes it unlikely that even the most controversial policies will lead to a marked change-over in the partisan makeup of the Legislature. Further complicating the GOP’s efforts is the fact that a handful of Republicans supported the cap-and-trade bill. Backers note that it’s a more cost-effective way for the state to meet its aggressive climate targets than the alternatives. And they point to endorsements from California Chamber of Commerce for cap-and-trade and the road taxes.
Still, the first potential casualties of the votes coming in such close succession could be Sen. Josh Newman, D-Fullerton, and the Democratic super-majority in the Senate. With two-thirds’ control, Democrats can raises taxes without Republican votes.
The freshman is one of 26 Democrats in the Senate, along with one Republican, who voted for the $5.2 billion-per-year transportation package to repair California roads. The measure required approval by two-thirds of the members in each house.
Brown had to make compromises. He and legislative leaders dished out nearly $1 billion in district-specific projects to convince wavering Democrats and one Republican to pass the bill. On cap and trade, Brown agreed to a separate air quality measure and made commitments with leadership to work toward a housing package when they return from summer break.
Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, a Democrat from Los Angeles, stressed that prolonging the cap-and-trade program was a goal shared by Brown and lawmakers.
“We won’t abandon the world when it comes to climate action, as demonstrated by President Trump,” he said. “We all feel a sense of urgency because of the president pulling out of the Paris accords.”
The GOP is already campaigning against the road funding measure, labeling it the largest gas tax increase in California’s history. The campaign to recall Newman had turned in nearly 88,000 signatures as of the first week in June, according to tallies from election offices in Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Orange counties. Newman on Monday joined his Democratic colleagues in also voting for the cap-and-trade extension.
Brown held a rare fundraiser for Newman at de Vere’s Irish Pub in Sacramento in May. He also visited with Newman in the district, where they dined together, but did not hold a public event.
Thus far, the campaign opposing the recall has pulled in nearly $1.3 million in contributions. Roughly $160,000 came from the California Democratic Party.
De León said he understood the lingering “hangover” of the road repair tax vote in April. Legislators have been hesitant to take up another two-thirds bill that would be attacked by some as raising taxes. However, he downplayed the potential blowback over the cap and trade bill, which he described as a more than $3 billion tax break for rural residents and manufacturers to create more jobs.
“Sooner or later, cap and trade would have to come up for a debate and a vote,” he said of the program, which was set to expire in 2020. “It is our responsibility to get it done. It happened that we landed on a negotiated deal that was fair across the board and it was time to vote.”
Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon also sought to minimize the electoral fallout.
“It will play differently in every district,” Rendon said after the vote. “I think what’s important is the widespread support from business and environmental groups that it had.”
Andrew Acosta, a Democratic strategist in Sacramento, acknowledged that it’s more difficult for Newman to explain his affirmative votes than it is for opponents to cast them as tax hikes. Still, voters are smart, he said, and could be receptive to policy details. Acosta recalled working with Democrats who, during difficult state budget years, were encouraged to back tax hikes to balance the books.
“There are times where voters are happy to see leadership on an issue,” he said. “They (also could point to) the shining example of California doing things, versus D.C., which is in total gridlock.”
Newman described Senate Bill 1 as a “pay-as-you-go bill,” arguing it’s for transportation improvements that are critically needed.
“We’re not passing the buck to the next generation,” he told The Bee after the recall’s launch. “Unfortunately, there is a massive backlog that must be addressed.”
Brown flew down to the districts of other Democrats that supported the gas tax within weeks of the transportation vote, including Assemblywomen Sabrina Cervantes, D-Riverside, and Sharon Quirk-Silva, D-Fullerton, neither of whom backed his climate bill.
It wouldn’t be the first time detractors used the complex program as the basis for a political hit. In 2014, Quirk-Silva’s Republican opponent, Young Kim, paid for ads warning viewers the Democrat “supports new regulations that will raise the price of a gallon of gas.”
Mark DiCamillo, director of the Berkeley IGS Poll, said the cap-and-trade extension benefits Brown’s public imagine and persona. “It makes him look like a very effective leader,” he said.
The rub is that the public has not been exposed to any of the potential costs quite yet, DiCamillo said. For the road-fix plan, the increased gas taxes and vehicles fees begin in November and January, respectively. The new “transportation improvement fee” ranges from $25 to $175, depending on the value of the vehicle.
“When you are talking about a tax increase passed by two-thirds vote, voters see that as one of the issues they have with one-party rule in Sacramento, and that creates a more negative perception of the Legislature,” he said. “What does the public think is the best way to hammer out laws? They like it to be through compromise. When it comes to tax increases, voters would like to have the final say.”
Brown, the longest-serving sitting governor in America, has forcefully pushed back at the idea that he’s doing anything to cast in stone his personal legacy. Touting his climate advocacy, among other achievements,on CNN’s “The Axe Files,” Brown told David Axelrod why he so dislikes the term.
“That’s already looking back. I’m looking ahead,” he said. “It’s just like some people in politics want to get their enemies. And, you know, if someone does something to me, I want to move on. I want make new friends, new allies, and the high-speed rail, climate change, Affordable Care Act, rebuilding the roads and bridges in California, that’s plenty to do. That’s very exciting.”