California Gov. Jerry Brown refused invitations to criticize President Donald Trump. Brown wasn’t much interested in talking about who he hopes to replace him next year, either.
But as the Democratic governor reflected Wednesday on his final state budget, a document his administration is proposing amid a leftward shift in his party, Brown, 79, leveled with the public about the costs of further expanding popular government programs.
Speaking with reporters at the Capitol, Brown contended that if the next governor wants to impose far-reaching progressive policies like government-run, universal health care, preschool for everyone, free college and considerably more funding for affordable housing, it’s going to take more money. Taking stock of the full budget picture, he reasoned that the way to raise the needed funds is to hike taxes.
“The accumulated demand or desire for very good and worthwhile programs is greater than the revenue structure,” said Brown, unconstrained by another campaign. “So there’s only one answer to that, and that is to go back to the people and say, ‘Would you like to provide more?’ ”
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The $190 billion budget Brown proposed, his 16th spending plan as California’s longest-serving governor, would sock another $5 billion away into the state’s rainy day fund, for a total of $13.5 billion. Implicit in the document, and explicit in Brown’s commentary, was a renewed warning for that next generation of candidates who want his job: Be prepared for the inevitable recession.
“We have our piggy bank,” Brown said, motioning to one of the colorful charts behind him during his last budget presentation. “And we want to fill it up.”
It’s been more than five years since Brown staked his own governorship on a tax increase to pay for schools. Proposition 30 passed, the economy rebounded, and Brown said he considers himself quite fortunate. But the next governor won’t have the same luck, he stressed, noting that the state has endured 10 recessions since World War II. Like with big earthquakes here, he’s convinced it’s just a matter of time.
“This recovery is past due to expire right now,” said Bill Whalen, a speechwriter to former Republican Gov. Pete Wilson and Hoover Institution research fellow. “It’s not a question of if, but when the economy is going to slow down and the surpluses are going to turn into shortfalls.”
“Whoever wins the race will be the guy who loses at music chairs,” he added. “The music is going to stop playing for them.”
In recent years, the urges of the Legislature’s Democratic majority have centered largely on committing more money to ongoing expenses that tend to grow over time rather than decrease. Only 15 of the state’s 117 lawmakers were in office when Brown was forced into budget triage back in 2011.
While fiscal discipline is a responsibility of both branches of government, the buck stops with the governor. One definition of governor, Brown has noted over the years, is a device that regulates the supply of energy to a machine, ensuring uniform motion, or limiting its speed.
Each of the Democrats running for governor would face pressure to deliver on expensive proposals they’ve staked out during the campaign, and which have earned them support – in the form of endorsements and contributions – of powerful interest groups.
Brown described two possible approaches for leaders at the Capitol: “steady as you go,” or “exuberance, followed by regret, and pain.”
Gil Duran, a Democratic strategist and former Brown spokesman, noted the governor was sometimes criticized in 2010 for running what he called a values-based campaign some thought needed more detail. “But details, especially when they come with big price tags, can get you into trouble,” Duran said.
“For the next governor, governing starts during the campaign,” he added. “You have to make choices and chart a course.”
Brown is among the state’s most popular elected officials, a fact not lost on the candidates, some of whom have struggled at times to embrace his legacy while dancing delicately around his shortcomings.
A statewide survey out in November found that more than 70 percent of Democrats want the next governor to pursue Brown’s agenda. About half of voters overall held that position, the USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll determined, including a majority of young voters, Latinos and those with college degrees.
Of the leading Democrats, only former San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, the lieutenant governor, and former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, have held executive positions during a recession. Both understand the kind of impact a downturn could have on their priorities, and how they’re received by the public. Treasurer John Chiang’s central campaign theme of fiscal restraint most closely tracks with Brown’s approach.
Less than six months ahead of the primary election, and with the state’s economy and the stock market booming, the question is whether voters will soon feel the economic pinch that worries Brown.
Nothing in the early stages of the race has been able to eclipse the attention on Trump and Republicans, whose statements and actions trigger a steady stream of enmity from California Democrats. Brown made it a point on Wednesday to remind them of postelection financial reality.
“He is a lame-duck governor,” Whalen said, applying a phrase that can make Brown bristle. “But he still can cast a long shadow over the race that the candidates can’t ignore.”