Dan Walters

Dan Walters: Brown headed for another term, but major acts still unsettled

Jerry Brown may not be universally admired, but polls indicate that he’s virtually certain to win a record fourth term as governor, perhaps even in a landslide, and thus four more years to cement his place in political history.

However, that place depends largely on how well these major acts, all works in progress, of term No. 3 pan out:

• Budget – When Brown signed the 2014-15 budget last week, he proclaimed that it showed “your government is working.”

While Brown deserves credit for dampening the Legislature’s expansionist tendencies, the budget is balanced largely because of a revenue surge from an economic recovery and a temporary tax increase.

Brown is also championing a rainy-day fund to ease the impact of future downturns, but it won’t do much if a major recession hits the state in this decade, which history indicates is likely. Meanwhile, the temporary taxes will expire near the end of his next term.

• Realignment – Brown is proud of criminal justice realignment to divert low-level felons into county jails and probation, and reduce overcrowding of state prisons under federal court order.

“The prison emergency is over in California,” Brown declared in 2013. However, it appears only to have been shifted into another venue.

Counties have been given a constitutional guarantee of money, but it’s indirectly coming from that temporary tax increase.

Meanwhile, as the Los Angeles Times reported last weekend, local jails are being packed with 142,000 diverted felons, forcing sheriffs to release lesser miscreants, and they are complaining that the revenue doesn’t cover their costs.

• Education – The state’s new budget includes a multibillion-dollar increase in school financing, much of which is being concentrated on poor and “English-learner” students in hopes of closing a yawning “achievement gap.”

The school money is constitutionally protected and would complicate the budget should revenue drop later in the decade. Focusing money on poor kids is a theory whose efficacy, or lack thereof, can only be proved over time.

• Bullet train – This is one of two huge public works projects on which Brown is staking his bid for a positive legacy, but it has scant public support and money for merely a short stretch of track.

The governor persuaded the Legislature to divert a big chunk of the state’s new cap-and-trade greenhouse gas fees into the bullet train, but there are legal clouds, and even with the fee money, the train is still many billions short of financing.

• Twin tunnels – This is the other big project, boring tunnels beneath the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to ease water deliveries. It faces immense opposition, however, and it’s still unclear whether major water agencies will be willing to finance it and whether it can survive the legal and political challenges that lie ahead.