When Jerry Brown reclaimed the governorship seven years ago, his aides took pains to stress that he had no legislative agenda, focusing instead on calming the financial upheaval that fed multibillion-dollar state budget deficits.
“Let’s not forget that Job No. 1 – make no mistake about it – is fixing our state budget and getting our spending in line with our revenue,” Brown said in his 2011 inaugural address. “Once we do that, the rest will be easy – at least easier because we will have learned to work together and earned back the respect and trust of the people we serve.”
As the Democratic governor prepares Thursday to deliver his 16th and final State of the State – a speech generally used to chart a course for the coming year – he’ll have another chance to shape how he’s remembered.
Brown’s office has kept a tight lid on his last year-opening address, offering only that the governor and his team planned to work on the speech right up until he delivers it. To date, Brown’s would-be successors and political observers count his fiscal stewardship, and continued focus on state spending, as his greatest achievement.
“But,” as Dan Schnur, an adviser to Republican former Gov. Pete Wilson, puts it, “They don’t build statues to governors who balance the budget.”
“It’s a great accomplishment to which he should point with a significant amount of pride,” Schnur added. “But it’s not a legacy project because it can go away once the next governor and the next Legislature take over.”
Brown, for his part, is acutely aware of that risk, even as he rejects the concept of “legacy” as purely a “media construct.” He once told his father, the late Gov. Pat Brown, that nobody remembers governors, a point the younger Brown reiterated earlier this month when unveiling his final budget.
“Can you tell me the legacy of Goodwin Knight? Or Gov. (Frank) Merriam. Or (George) Deukmejian?” Jerry Brown asked, allowing a smirk. “Governors don’t have legacies. That’s my No. 1 proposition.”
Brown, a Latin scholar with considerable cultural significance who is nearing the end of his fourth term, may be an exception to his own rule. In an interview late last year, he noted that some of his efforts last year weren’t yet on the agenda at the time the year before.
“We’ve got plenty to do,” Brown said. “Some people just like to churn. Some things are better left alone.”
Besides the budget, what’s been his biggest focus?
Climate change. Conservation and environmental protection tend to best link his turns as governor, from 1975 to 1983, and then 2011 to the present. Brown has used the annual speeches to argue, as he did in 1980, that the prosperity of the state is irrevocably linked to preserving its environment.
On Jan. 6, 1975, Brown’s first inaugural address, he warned about the “big job ahead,” including “the rising cost of energy, the depletion of our resources (and) the threat to the environment ...” Such issues are “not the work of one person,” he said. “It is the work of all of us working together.”
In his State of the State address the next year, Brown proposed setting aside $10 million for a civilian conservation corps. “That will not only protect our environment, but provide needed job opportunities,” he said.
This fall, Brown is hosting an international summit in San Francisco that will focus attention on California as a global leader in greenhouse gas reduction. He said he wants to help make the state’s cap-and-trade system work and meet an ambitious target to put more zero-emission vehicles on California roads. Ambitious? Sure. But he’s already positioned himself on the world stage as a counterweight to President Donald Trump.
Before leaving Germany in November, Brown signed what he described as a “revolutionary” climate pact with Mexico and Canada. They made the deal across the hall from American negotiators, who kept the door shut.
“They knew we were across the hall,” Brown reminded a reporter. “So,” he added, pleased with the direction he and some others have taken, “I guess you can run. But you can’t hide.”
Q: How has he taken on Trump?
A: With more circumspection than most Democratic leaders.
In his State of the State last year, Brown appealed to the president to back a largely unspecified infrastructure plan to help California build roads, tunnels, railroads and a dam.
To gird for the inevitable fights, Brown predicted California would have to summon, as Abraham Lincoln said, “the better angels of our nature.”
Yet he’s picked some spots to spar over, and generate widespread attention. The Brown administration and other Democratic leaders challenged the federal government over the environment, as well as health care, taxes and its tough stance on illegal immigration. Brown drew those battle lines in his recurring standoff in last year’s opening speech.
Q: What about his big infrastructure projects?
A: In last year’s speech, Brown only obliquely mentioned his proposed high-speed rail project, after talking extensively about it in 2013.
The bullet train has continued to hit bumps ever since, with the latest blow coming with a projection of increased costs. The train’s initial leg, a nearly 120-mile stretch from Madera to Bakersfield, recently rose by more than a third, to $10.6 billion.
Brown has taken steps to push through the adversity. Brian Kelly, Brown’s transportation czar who helped pursue last year’s $52 billion roads package paid for with increases in fuel taxes and new registration fees, signed on as the rail authority’s new chief executive and executive director.
The Democrats running to replace him have all pledged support for the project. Whether they will be able to attract significant public and private investment to continue its construction, something the governor has been unable to do, is another question.
Constructing a water-delivery system has also been challenging. After years of chasing a plan to build twin tunnels under the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, officials have again signaled their willingness to scale back their ambitions to a single tunnel.
Brown cautioned two years ago against “pitting fish against farmer,” arguing that it misses the point and grossly distorts reality.
In a November interview, he reasoned that “anything big takes heroic effort.”
He said he thinks the project will continue no matter who becomes governor because farmers, urban users in Southern California and Silicon Valley, and other supporters “will come out of the woodwork.”
Q: Where else is Brown playing defense?
A: In 2011, he stepped up pressure on Republicans reluctant to help put his tax measure on the ballot, calling their opposition “unconscionable” in his most direct attack to date.
Today, an effort to repeal Senate Bill 1, the gas tax, is moving ahead, a prospect Brown has preemptively derided as a blow to the economy.
“It’s common sense. This is all money going to roads,” he said.
Brown, with millions tucked away in his political account, may also have to defend his criminal justice agenda against a possible ballot initiative victims’ rights organizations are pushing. It would weaken changes he’s championed to reduce the state’s prison population.
Brown’s modus operandi on initiatives has been to start late, certainly not until a measure qualifies for the ballot, so don’t expect a barrage of campaigning. But one or either of the issues could come to occupy his final fall as governor.
Q: What new initiative might he propose?
A: Brown hasn’t always held back his priorities in past speeches.
Two years ago, there was his pitch to deal with serious infrastructure deficiencies. He proposed $2 billion in one-time investments to repair and replace aging structures. The year before he called on Democrats and Republicans to come together on the road funding plan that finally passed last year.
That same year, on climate, he laid out three goals, including an increase from a third to 50 percent the amount of the state’s electricity derived from renewable sources.
Brown has talked about continuing with his criminal justice changes.
“I will take up mental health,” Brown said in an earlier interview, without specifying a specific initiative. “That’s going to be an issue.”
His proposed budget includes $3.1 billion for health care services programs, which officials say will improve mental health, medical and dental care in prisons.
Q: Can we expect cultural references?
A: It wouldn’t be a Brown speech without them.
While his earlier addresses were fairly dry, the more recent efforts have been packed with the words of writers, thinkers and artists.
Brown went from, in 1980, urging lawmakers to pass specific alternative energy legislation, to, in 2013, recalling the adventures of great explorers as they marched back to San Diego, forced to feed on the flesh of emaciated pack mules just to stay alive.
Montaigne, the French writer of the 16th century, popped up later, as did the Irish poet William Butler Yeats, who was quoted as saying that “Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire.”
Even the state’s boom and bust budgeting, a favorite subject for Brown to rant about, could be connected to the Book of Genesis, and advice that Joseph gave to the Pharaoh: “Put away your surplus during the years of great plenty so you will be ready for the lean years which are sure to follow.”
Q: Will there be advice for his successor?
A: In 1982, Brown stressed that he doesn’t understate the need for revenue. Still, reflecting on the past, he noted that neither gigantic tax increases in the early 1970s nor massive tax decreases of the late ’70s served to prepare California to enter what he described as a revolutionary Information Age.
As he does today, he spoke of California as the “Great Exception.” Many of the “difficulties” he described, from taxes, crime, shelter and pensions to medical costs, transportation, energy and the manner in which the state treats its natural systems – fisheries, forests, soil, water – would remain long after he left office.
Brown said at the time he calls them “difficulties,” not problems, because a problem is solved or forgotten, whereas difficulties remain to teach people how to care, to elicit the best from them, to show them how to depend on one another.
He acknowledged recently that many residents remain under economic stress. But in keeping with his view of the state as the “Great Exception,” Brown said it continues to provide opportunities and jobs people compete for.
“California has a sense of prosperity that belies the critics who find such a high degree of poverty,” he said.
“Don’t worry,” he added about the upcoming year, his last, “I have done a hell of a lot in the seven years.
“So, we’ll be doing a hell of a lot in the eighth year.”
2018 State of the State
What: Gov. Jerry Brown delivers his 16th and final State of the State speech to a joint session of the Legislature and state constitutional officers.
When: 10 a.m. Thursday
Where: State Capitol, Assembly chamber
How to watch: The speech will be live streamed on The California Channel. Look for live updates on sacbee.com.