Editorials

Jerry Brown has a huge opportunity, assuming he wins his fourth term, and we do

California Gov. Jerry Brown meets with the Sacramento Bee Editorial Board in May 2014.
California Gov. Jerry Brown meets with the Sacramento Bee Editorial Board in May 2014. pkitagaki@sacbee.com

Gov. Jerry Brown’s run for a fourth term may be the quietest gubernatorial campaign since Earl Warren ran as a Republican and Democrat and won with 90 percent of the vote in 1946.

Brown almost certainly will – and, in our judgment, should – win on Nov. 4. The inability of Republican Neel Kashkari and the GOP to challenge the Democratic governor in any serious way is no excuse for ignoring issues that will face California during the next four years and beyond.

This being California, we expect that the unexpected will occur. A major earthquake may strike, the drought will persist, or there will be floods or some plague that we cannot imagine. Still, a governor can control certain things. Understanding that the votes haven’t been cast, let alone counted, we offer a few suggestions for a fourth Brown term.

Four years ago, Brown faced a $26 billion budget deficit. There’s a surplus now, thanks to a mending economy, $7 billion in tax increases approved by voters in 2012, and decisions to forgo a new spending spree.

It won’t always be so.

Proposition 2 on the Nov. 4 ballot will help force the state to pay down debt and build a budget reserve, if voters approve it. That will help. But Brown also should look to overhaul the tax system.

Lest voters forget, Brown favored a more moderate mix of taxes. But short-sighted Republican legislators refused to place Brown’s tax package on the ballot.

The result: Democrats won super-majorities in the 2012 legislative races, and voters approved poll-tested tax hikes promoted by some of the most liberal members of the Democratic coalition. Now, wealthy Californians, supposedly part of the Republican base, pay a 13.3 percent personal income tax on earnings of $1 million or more.

As those taxes expire, Brown ought to open a broader discussion. Calls for tax reform often are code for lowering taxes on rich people and raising them on middle-income earners. There must be a smarter way.

California’s tax code is pockmarked with loopholes that might have made sense at one point, but remain on the books because the beneficiaries retain the best lobbyists.

The corporate tax rate remains among the nation’s highest. That can’t be good for attracting new businesses. Property taxes are low, but only for long-time property owners. No one should want to jack up taxes on older homeowners. But some corporations play games with ownership structures to avoid their fair share. That must stop.

Sales tax rates are too high, too, and sales taxes fall heaviest on people who can least afford to pay, particularly young middle-income and lower-income families. The rate ought to be lowered and services used by more affluent people ought to be taxed.

California never will be a low-cost place to do business. But part of California’s allure must include an educated, innovative and motivated workforce.

Brown has made major changes by pushing for local control over school funding. He must see those changes through. He almost must turn his attention to higher education. California’s promise of an affordable college education has become a lie. The University of California in particular needs to cut lavish salaries paid to bureaucrats, and spend more to develop, attract and retain great teachers.

While Congress and the president cannot agree how to lower student loan interest rates, California should step in to help with student debt.

Overall crime is falling, despite claims to the contrary by critics of Brown’s criminal justice realignment. Realignment has reduced the state prison population, and shifted responsibility to counties. The governor must make sure it works, and make adjustments as needed.

Realignment should not be viewed as a money-saving exercise. Any money not spent on locking people up should be funneled into drug treatment, care for mentally ill offenders, and job training to combat recidivism.

We remain skeptical of Brown’s proposal to build twin tunnels to move water past the Delta. But Proposition 1, the $7.5 billion water bond on the Nov. 4 ballot, can solve many of California’s water problems.

Brown is making the most of California’s influence by asserting a foreign policy of sorts. His agreements with Mexico and China to reduce greenhouse gases must be more than symbolic.

If California’s cap-and-trade program is to work, it must go beyond California. He needs to show neighboring states that they could benefit by collaborating in a regional program.

And, please, stop talking about high-speed rail, and start building it.

Brown won’t be president, which long was his ambition. But overseeing the nation-sized state of California isn’t a bad consolation. We endorsed Brown earlier this year because he had accomplished what he set out to do when voters elected him in 2010.

He could do much more in the next four years. Assuming he wins on Nov. 4, and we do, Brown will have the experience, the know-how and political capital to make generational changes that would be the stuff of legacy.

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