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Commentary: My Ride With Jerry Brown

Official gubernatorial portrait of Jerry Brown.
Official gubernatorial portrait of Jerry Brown.

KPBS producer Pat Finn reflects on Jerry Brown and Prop 13. Here’s my Jerry Brown story. It takes place in Berkeley on a cold night in probably 1961. I attend a pretty terrible amateur production of “Romeo and Juliet” with a friend from Mills College and her boyfriend, a Jesuit dropout named either Peter or Paul. Peter-or-Paul decides to see if his friend Jerry Brown wants to go out for coffee with us. I’m game. A good-looking but obviously reluctant (white shirt, no jacket, freezing night) young guy gets in the back seat, throws a perfunctory hello over his shoulder to me, leans forward and says to Peter-or-Paul, “Turn on the radio.” I’m inwardly rolling my eyes, if that’s possible, and wondering who this guy thinks he is, anyway, when he says, more urgently now, “Turn on the radio. There’s an execution tonight, and I’m worried about my father.” Oh. That Jerry Brown. We literally ride once around the block, trying various news stations, and deposit Jerry Brown back on the steps of Berkeley’s International House to worry about his father, Pat Brown, the Governor of the great State of California.

I never saw Jerry Brown in person again. But, as a Californian, I certainly followed his career. After studying for the priesthood at a Jesuit seminary, law at Yale and classics at UC Berkeley, Brown opted for a much more rigorous test of his patience and endurance with a stint on the board of the Los Angeles Community College District. Admirably, he lasted a year before running for – and becoming -- Secretary of State. In 1974 Jerry Brown was in turn elected Governor of California. He followed Ronald Reagan, who, eight years before, had deftly deflected Pat Brown’s try for a third term.

When the younger Brown took his seat in the governor’s chair in 1975, California was breezing through the ’70s with a $5 billion budget surplus and soaring property values. Higher property values meant more property taxes, which sent more and more revenue into local treasuries. Today, the idea of having enough funds for most services, and for building and maintaining schools, roads and infrastructure (and with billions leftover, no less) seems like an absurd fantasy. But then, as property taxes climbed into the ozone, the prospect of eviction for non-payment of taxes haunted worried homeowners who saw it as a nightmare.


Two years after Jerry Brown was elected, frustrated voters would finally get Sacramento’s attention by carpet-bombing the Golden State with Proposition 13, a law that would change everything about the way public institutions are financed in California. Not only did it freeze and then reduce property taxes, but suddenly any state tax increase had to be approved by 60% of the Legislature. Like that was ever going to happen.

Jerry Brown Reacts to Prop 13
Governor Jerry Brown reacts to the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978.

JERRY BROWN: Proposition 13 takes place on July 1st. We have only three weeks to act. Three weeks to decide multi-billion dollars' of fiscal questions, to set a new direction for the 5,000 units of government throughout our state. It is time to put aside partisan differences. The vote represented Democrats and Republicans, people from the north and the south, old and young, and all parts of our wonderful state. We must follow three basic principles: No new state taxes -- voters have told us they want a tax cut, they don't want a shell game. Number two, the state must share the burden. We must adopt a thoughtful, austere budget. Already I have imposed a hiring freeze. There will be no new hiring, and when someone leaves state service, he or she will not be replaced unless there is an emergency or unless there is extraordinary reason. We must keep the uncertainty to a minimum. I will propose budget cuts of at least 300 million dollars. The more money we can save at the state level, the more we can share with local governments, fire, police, schools, cities, counties, and all those who carry out the peoples' work.

With a $5 billion surplus, Jerry Brown and the legislature might have avoided the scorched earth of Proposition 13 by spending the surplus or giving it back. But they woke up too late to the fact that homeowners might be a tad miffed at shouldering a ballooning tax burden while Sacramento hoarded a huge budget surplus. But our miserly young governor was a man who was driven around the capitol in a Plymouth, not the usual limousine, and who lived in an apartment in downtown Sacramento, not in the brand-new Governor’s Mansion. He wasn’t about to spend $5 billion on anything.

According to L.A. Times Sacramento columnist George Skelton, Jerry Brown campaigned hard against Proposition 13 by calling it a fraud and a rip-off; but when it passed with 65% of the vote, he said, “We have our marching orders from the people.” He called himself a “born-again tax cutter” and even earned the admiration of the father of the Great California Tax Rebellion, Howard Jarvis. He was not going to be on the wrong side of a revolution.

Jerry Brown was decades ahead of many politicians believing an “era of limits” against expansive government programs was coming. And he was right. So here we are today, surrounded by nothing but limits. Forty-third of 50 states in per-pupil spending. Layoffs. Friday furloughs. Closed libraries. Locked state parks. Fewer college admissions. Larger high school classes. Fired home health-care workers. Pot-holes as far as the eye can see.

If I could take another ride around the block with Jerry Brown -- and get him to talk to me this time -- I would ask him the questions he has been avoiding from KPBS since we started production on our examination of Proposition 13: Is he running for governor because he thinks he can dig us out of the very deep hole we are in? And, if so, is he sorry for having played a role in putting us there in the first place?