November 16, 2018


Man of Tomorrow (ALAN GREENBLATT | NOVEMBER 2018, Governing)

Because he is unusual, Brown has always been caricatured. But he returned to the governorship in 2011 not just older, but also more grounded. Politicians in Sacramento can tell you what books he's been reading lately, which may include histories of the Weimar Republic or the treatment of American Indians, but they insist he is not some ephemeral, abstract thinker. He explores ideas not for their own sake but for how they might be put into practice. He's had the discipline in his later terms to promote his big ideas in small batches, setting clear priorities each year. He's gotten better both as an executive overseeing the government and as a policymaker able to win legislators over to his point of view. He may quote Latin in his spare time, but on the job he does his homework. "He's this combination of a cigar-chomping politician and a philosopher king," says Leonor Ehling, director of the Center for California Studies at Sacramento State University.

Thad Kousser, who chairs the political science department at the University of California, San Diego, describes Brown's uniqueness a little differently: "I can't see anyone patterning themselves on his persona." Kousser describes that persona as "be grouchy and supercheap, quote obscure philosophers, avoid social media and never make a public presentation without a doomsday-predicting graph."

Perhaps the most telling example of Brown's forward-looking stewardship has been his handling of the state budget. Throughout his last eight years in office, he's worked with a legislature thoroughly dominated by his fellow Democrats. But he's never given them everything they wanted. He signaled his intention to act as a brake on the legislature right away, vetoing the first budget it sent him in 2011 because it didn't include enough spending cuts. As the state's economy has boomed during his tenure, he has resisted his party's impulse to spend whatever was available. "In the last four or five years, there were plenty of chances for him to spend, and he chose to save," says state Sen. Steve Glazer, who once served as a political adviser to Brown. "This is the key to good executive leadership, thinking not only about what it will cost this year but the projection of the out-years going forward."

While exercising restraint on the spending side, Brown has helped increase the state's revenue intake. California has a highly progressive tax code that relies heavily on taxing income and capital gains earned in more affluent places like Palo Alto and Beverly Hills. But Brown showed no hesitation in asking voters in 2012 to further raise taxes on those with personal incomes over $250,000 as part of a package that also raised the sales tax. In 2016, voters gave him a 12-year extension of the income tax increase.

All these factors together -- Brown's fiscal constraints, his willingness to raise taxes and the overall health of the state's economy -- have turned California's finances around. Before he took office, it was common to hear that California, which faced chronic budget shortfalls larger than most other states' budgets, was going to be the next Greece. The state was unable to pay its bills, often resorting to IOUs. California led the nation in municipal bankruptcies. Kevin Starr, a celebrated California historian, wrote that it was on the verge of becoming America's "first failed state."

You don't hear that kind of talk anymore. Brown inherited a shortfall of $27 billion, but he's leaving with $18 billion stashed away in the state's rainy day fund. He paid down much of the short-term debt his predecessors had taken on, as they dug their way temporarily out of holes while leaving bigger messes behind. Now, the state has its highest bond rating in two decades. At one point this year, it was sitting on $31 billion worth of voter-approved but unsold bonds.

Every American governor elected in the large Class of 2010 is leaving his or her state in better financial shape in 2018, thanks to the long recovery that followed the last recession. But none has accomplished as dramatic a turnaround as Brown, who is leaving plenty of money in the bank for his successor (almost certainly Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom) to play with. "He held the line single-handedly," says state Sen. Bob Hertzberg. "He made a lot of tough choices. The credit goes to him 100 percent. Not 96 percent, 100 percent."

Posted by at November 16, 2018 6:30 AM