In his 16th and final State of the State address, California governor Jerry Brown made a case that his policies have charted a glorious future for the Golden State. Californians may not be convinced, but for longtime observers, Brown succeeded in summarizing and encapsulating his political career.
“Learning takes place in the classroom,” Brown said, “and that’s why our first job is to support teachers and give them the training and freedom to teach as they know best.” Brown did not cite the state’s stagnating, subpar test scores in math and English proficiency, but he did note that “spending has dramatically recovered.” In 1975, Brown signed the Rodda Act, which authorized collective bargaining by teachers’ unions such as the powerful California Teachers Association. Brown stumps for tax increases on behalf of poor minority students, then looks the other way as educrats spend the money on salary increases, a process he calls “subsidiarity.” Teachers’ unions can deliver miserable results and still get whatever they want. Indeed, the state’s government-employee unions are so powerful that they gather outside the capitol and proclaim, “this is our house.” Brown rewards them with bonuses; the state payroll is up $1 billion.
Brown beat the drum on climate change and called for incentives to produce 5 million zero-emission vehicles by 2030. In that cause, he said, the new $5.2 billion tax on gasoline and diesel fuel—and a new annual fee on all vehicles—was “essential,” adding, “I will do everything in my power to defeat any repeal effort.” Brown thus rehearsed his well-established fondness for punitive taxation. When the tax-limiting Proposition 13 appeared in the late 1970s, Brown attacked it as a “fraud” and a “rip-off.” After it passed, Brown declared himself, unpersuasively, a “born-again tax cutter.” He leaves behind a state with the highest marginal income-tax rate, at 13.3 percent, and the highest base sales tax, at 7.5 percent. And he blasts those who protest high taxes as “freeloaders.”
“I like trains,” Brown said, “and I like high-speed trains even better,” referring to the state’s beleaguered high-speed rail project. “Yes, it costs a lot of money,” Brown said—and he provided no overall cost estimates—but in the long run, it would prove “cheaper and more convenient than expanding airports and building new freeways.” The bullet train would be “fast, quiet, and powered by renewable electricity and last 100 years,” and it was already employing 1,500 construction workers. (By the logic of using infrastructure projects as jobs programs, California could equip the workers with spoons instead of tractors and thereby eliminate unemployment.) Brown neglected to add that the rail project also has a Sacramento headquarters and three regional offices, or that its board serves as a sinecure for washed-up politicians such as former congresswoman Lynn Schenk, once chief of staff to California governor Gray Davis. By some accounts, the bullet train will be more expensive than air travel, but Brown has always made things work for bureaucrats.
Brown conceded that crime remains a problem, and he outlined reforms in the state’s prison system and promoted “more mental health and drug treatment programs.” Even before he signed sanctuary-state legislation, Brown’s outlook on crime has tended to veer out of the mainstream, even for California. During his first governorship, in the 1970s, Brown refused to extradite American Indian militant Dennis Banks, who had fled to the Golden State after his conviction on riot and assault charges. Brown’s pick for California Supreme Court chief justice, Rose Bird, overturned every death sentence that came before her, including the one given to Ted Frank, who tortured and murdered two-year-old Amy Sue Sykes. Voters booted Bird off the court in 1986, along with Brown appointees Cruz Reynoso and Joseph Grodin.
Brown talked up his $17 billion WaterFix tunnel project, but he leaves behind a state with crumbling infrastructure. Last year, spillway failures on the Oroville Dam forced the evacuation of more than 180,000 people. Brown teamed with state water bosses to block access to the dam’s design specifications, federal inspection reports, technical documents, and other crucial information. In similar style, when asked about safety issues on the new $6.4 billion span of the Bay Bridge, Brown responded: “I mean, look, shit happens.”
Still, Brown’s audience in the legislative chamber was chanting “Jerry! Jerry!” yesterday. “As my father used to say, I accept the nomination,” Brown responded, reminding any who don’t already know that his father, Edmund G. “Pat” Brown, was governor before him. That paternal legacy was the key to the son’s first gubernatorial election victory, in 1974. For some Californians, the career of Brown fils may recall Edward Gibbon’s observation: “Of the various forms of government which have prevailed in the world, an hereditary monarchy seems to present the fairest scope for ridicule.”
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