Bill Whalen

Bill Whalen: Jerry Brown is cautious – except on clean energy

Gov. Jerry Brown, accompanied by his wife, Anne Gust Brown, speaks at his inaugural reception at the California State Railroad Museum last week.
Gov. Jerry Brown, accompanied by his wife, Anne Gust Brown, speaks at his inaugural reception at the California State Railroad Museum last week. The Associated Press

Say what you will about Jerry Brown’s return to the Governor’s Office, but you can’t criticize the man for setting the bar too high – not in a first term highlighted by restrained rhetoric and an agenda more terrestrial than moonbeam.

Brown’s cautionary style continues in his second term – for example, last week’s admonition that California’s state budget is “precariously balanced.”

That said, we might be seeing signs of a lame duck wanting to leave the ground. We have the stated goals in Brown’s inaugural/State of the State address to boost renewable energy sources, improve energy efficiency and halve petroleum use by cars and trucks – all by the year 2030.

Brown may want to tread lightly. The last California governor to tinker under the hood with our love affair with combustible engines would be Gray Davis. He sat idly by as a budget deficit triggered an increase in the vehicle license fee. Voters soon decided that Davis’ idle hands were the devil’s workshop, showing him the door in the historic 2003 recall election.

Brown won’t get recalled for wanting to decrease fuel consumption – in no small part because we don’t know how he plans to pull it off. Or, for that matter, what his successor, or his successor’s successor, might do.

In this regard, give Brown credit for being clever – coming up with an idea that sounds good but lacks specifics, not unlike President Barack Obama’s pitch for free community college education.

But let’s also give Brown a demerit. Tossing out big ideas with scant details isn’t how he won in 2010, or why he was handily re-elected in November.

In Brown, Californians see a pragmatist, not a dreamer. Come the time he offers up the specifics on how he’ll make the big three energy goals a reality, let’s hope Brown is just that – a realist, not a shady salesman.

Here’s hoping Brown is also better attuned to his constituents’ wishes. Earlier this week, the Hoover Institution released its latest Golden State Poll on policy priorities and voters’ trust in government.

The poll has some concerning results. Of 21 policy choices offered, two of the bottom three were dealing with global warming and continuing the state’s high-speed rail project. Brown’s biggest moves last week? A speech highlighting his global-warming concerns and a trip to Fresno to break ground on the little engine that could (but may not).

Which ideas in Hoover’s survey had the strongest appeal? Strengthening the state’s economy, dealing with the state’s water problems and improving the job situation. To his credit, Brown scored big in 2014 with the successful passage of the $7.5 billion water bond. As for that other sea of trouble – California’s unreliable revenue stream – Brown remains a fish out of water when it comes to revamping the state’s tax code and boosting California’s economic confidence.

Why would Brown talk up the bottom end of the priority spectrum? Here’s one theory: because 2015 is more about dealing with lawmakers than voters. And part of the trick in getting legislative Democrats to bite on something they otherwise wouldn’t (i.e., changing public retiree health benefits to a pay-as-you-go system) is to dangle a shiny green carrot.

Still, the Hoover survey offers a warning. Despite the media plaudits for balancing California’s books, only a slim majority of Californians (54 percent) believe that Brown has been truthful about the budget. Respondents have more faith in the governor and California’s executive branch than the Legislature, but only by a 35 percent to 25 percent margin.

In other words, 40 percent of Californians aren’t sure who they should trust – a number that may climb if 2015 is a year devoted to futuristic pursuits whose certainty and feasibility will be determined in some future debate.

Bill Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow and former speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson. Whalen can be reached at