Dan Walters

Dan Walters: An era ends with lots of action but uncertain results

The close of the Legislature’s 2012-14 biennial session also marks the end of a noteworthy period – Jerry Brown’s third term as governor and the reigns of the Legislature’s two top leaders.

During his swan song speech to the Senate on Thursday, outgoing President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg called it a “six-year run where California went from the depths of budget hell and dysfunction to fiscal stability and serial achievement.”

Whether that is an accurate assessment of the past half-decade or so depends largely on one’s ideological orientation or sense of what state government should be doing for its 38 million constituents.

Certainly much has been enacted in recent years, from wholehearted embrace of Obamacare to a significant overhaul of education finance and, most recently, a bond issue aimed at making California’s water supply more reliable.

With Democrat Brown’s election to a third term after a 28-year interval and Democratic gains in the Legislature, the party’s major constituent groups – especially labor unions and environmental groups – pressed their agendas and scored some noteworthy wins.

They and Brown joined forces to persuade voters to raise taxes – mostly on the wealthy. And coupled with a slow recovery from recession, the tax hike raised state revenue by many billions of dollars, allowing Brown and legislators to balance the state budget after years of deficits and begin paying down immense accumulated debts.

The longer-term impact of what was wrought during the era, however, is uncertain.

The water bond needs voter approval and years of implementation; the school finance overhaul aimed at raising achievement by poor children is still a work in progress; supposed reforms in public pensions won’t have effects for decades; the tax increases are temporary; the expansion of medical insurance is colliding with a looming shortage of medical providers; and the recovery is very slow and uneven and may be short-circuited by another recession.

Moreover, Brown and the Legislature have ignored the alarming deterioration of the vital state highway system – and no, spending billions on a bullet train doesn’t mitigate that failure.

Perhaps most importantly, they have done little about the widening economic divide and increasing poverty among their constituents – a dilemma that can be truly addressed only by becoming more attractive to job-creating capital investment, not just increasing minimum wages and welfare benefits.

Rather than enacting broad tax and regulatory reforms, Brown and legislators have opted to raise utility and other business costs in the name of climate change and to provide tax loopholes and regulatory exemptions for those who enjoy political favor, including the movie industry and a basketball arena in Steinberg’s hometown.