As Gov. Jerry Brown completes a remarkable 15th year in California’s highest office, his standing has never been higher, nationally and internationally.
Deservedly so. With the White House having abdicated any pretense of leadership on the existential threat of global warming, California’s serious and informed governor has stepped up as America’s blunt voice of reason.
He took center stage at the two-year anniversary of the signing of the Paris climate change accord among world leaders, and last Sunday, his influence was the subject of the lead segment on “60 Minutes.” The glowing profile would have been pure gold for an ambitious politician striving for higher office. At 79, Brown appears to be interested in a deeper legacy.
Here at home, however, the prosaic demands of his day job continue. January will bring the final year of his final term.
Despite a successful 2017, next year will bring Brown plenty of challenges before he leaves for that home he and wife Anne Gust Brown are building on the family homestead in Colusa County. Few will be easy.
Certainly he will spend time on fighting climate change and righting California’s criminal justice system, his signature issues, but his administration will face other pressing demands: the impending commercialization of marijuana, California’s worsening housing crisis and federal tax cuts and health insurance rollbacks that, if President Donald Trump and congressional Republicans prevail, will do deep fiscal damage to California.
Brown has been dubious of the wisdom of legalizing recreational use of marijuana. Voters thought otherwise. So ready or not, commercial sales of pot will become legal on Jan. 1. Brown and his appointees must make sure still-developing state regulations don’t allow marketing to get out of hand, to the detriment of public health.
During his second stint as governor, Brown has vastly expanded health care by fully embracing the Affordable Care Act. He and his Health and Human Services Secretary Diana Dooley will need to fight to preserve those gains against ongoing threats by Trump and the GOP-dominated Congress to undermine Obamacare.
No state can solve income inequality. But the governor did come to support raising the minimum wage and creating and expanding a state-earned income tax credit to aid low-income families. Under his watch, however, California’s humanitarian crisis, homelessness, has worsened.
If, as seems likely, there’s a budget windfall in 2018 from capital gains taxes generated by the rising stock market, there would be no better use of one-time tax money paid by well-to-do Californians than to build shelters for people who have no shelter.
The governor, who faced a $25 billion budget gap upon entering office, heads into his final year with a rainy day fund of $8.4 billion, as required by a voter-approved ballot measure he advocated. Brown can be tight with a buck, and plays up that frugality, but reserves also can be hard for Legislatures to resist; this one should be used, as intended, to pay for vital programs when the next recession hits.
Debate also will surely grind on over Brown’s most controversial public works commitments, the hugely expensive high-speed rail and the twin tunnels project to move water across the Delta. The $64 billion rail project, which employs 1,500 people, is vital to the future of the Central Valley and should continue. The $15 billion tunnel concept remains a question mark, one that should be resolved, finally, in 2018.
In the past, Brown has declined to focus on overhauling the tax structure. But the GOP bill headed for a final vote will hit Californians hard. Sen. Robert Hertzberg, D-Los Angeles, has been working on a plan that would ease taxes on middle income earners, while expanding taxes on services used by wealthy Californians and out-of-state businesses that depend on California’s huge consumer market. The idea ought to gain currency in 2018.
Brown has made the environment and the fight against climate change central to his second stint as governor. It is important work, made more so as Trump and his cohorts dismiss man-made global warming. But in the 2017 legislative session, Brown missed opportunities to make sure his words led to action. Two involved significant environmentalist bills, both by outgoing President Pro Tem Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles.
Senate Bill 49 would declare explicitly that California’s clean air and water laws and protections for endangered species and worker safety would remain intact, no matter what the Trump administration does to weaken protections. SB 100 would have declared the state’s goal of generating all its electricity from renewable sources by 2045. When lawmakers return in January, the concepts ought to be revived and, if necessary, refined.
In 2017, Brown helped push through legislative approval of a 12-cent per gallon tax increase on gasoline that will generate $5.2 billion annually to restore California’s rutted roads and rebuild aging bridges. It was the first gas tax increase in 23 years, but it’s hardly set in stone. Self-styled protectors of tax dollars seek to force a vote to overturn the tax in 2018. But good roads come at a cost. The best defense against any ballot measure would be to make certain that motorists see progress.
The governor also won approval of an extension of the cap-and-trade program, which is intended to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by requiring polluters to pay for their emissions. It generates $2 billion-plus a year and is growing to as much as $8 billion, according to the Legislative Analyst Office.
Brown and legislators must maximize the impact of that money on projects that reduce pollution affecting people who must breathe bad air and who pay for cap and trade in higher prices.
On the international stage, the governor touts cap and trade as a solution to greenhouse gas emissions. Perhaps, in time, it will be. But the journalism nonprofit CALmatters, citing a California Air Resources Board analysis, reported that emission reductions this past year were due mainly to heavy rain that drove hydroelectric turbines, lessening the need for natural gas-fired plants that emit greenhouse gas. Pollution from the wine country and Southern California fires could erase any gains.
As those fires make clear, Brown and his successor must focus more closely on forest management and health, and fire prevention. Disaster will be our wild card for years to come.
It’s far better to govern in good economic times. Brown has benefited in this term from an expanding economy. He also has made his own luck by being a wise steward.
For California’s sake, here’s hoping that luck holds. There’s serious work to be done.