The Make-Or-Break Moment Of Jerry Brown’s Second Governorship
For all that Jerry Brown accomplished during his final two terms as California governor, a single moment could have changed everything.
Brown will hand the reins of the largest state in the nation over to Governor-elect Gavin Newsom on Monday, with a healthy budget surplus and a streak of political victories.
But if not for a pivotal battle six years ago that finally ended California’s budget crisis, Brown might have found himself making unthinkable spending cuts and turning aside his own agenda to abide by the voters’ wishes.
Instead, he earned the financial and political capital that fueled the rest of his governorship.
"Job number 1"
When Brown was sworn back into the office he first held in the 1970s and 80s, it was January 2011 — and California was in a budget crisis.
Even a rookie politician knows you can’t accomplish your goals with a $27 billion deficit. And California’s longest-serving governor is no rookie.
“Let’s not forget that job No. 1 — make no mistake about it — is fixing our state budget and getting our spending in line with our revenue,” Brown said in his 2011 State of the State address. “Once we do that, the rest is gonna be easy.”
After trying — and failing — to reach a deal with Republicans on a ballot measure that would extend expiring tax increases, Brown and legislative Democrats cut billions of dollars in spending: health care, child care, schools, universities. Then, he gathered voter signatures for his own tax initiative, which became Proposition 30.
With his wife and iconic first dog Sutter at his side in May 2012, Brown warned of billions more in trigger cuts if his measure failed — including losing three weeks off the school year.
“It’s crucial that we get this tax and the people vote for it and understand the consequences,” the governor said at the time.
So he hit the campaign trail hard that fall, putting his credibility and political capital on the line.
But as the election approached, voter approval was far from certain.
Republicans and anti-tax groups campaigned hard against it, launching ads that said the measure “raises our sales and income taxes to the highest in the nation.”
And a Public Policy Institute of California poll in late October showed the measure narrowly ahead — but shy of the magical 50 percent it needed to pass.
“Voters are very divided along their partisan preferences,” said the PPIC’s Mark Baldassare as he released that poll. “So we think the turnout in this election clearly is going to be very key to whether it succeeds or fails.”
And the stakes were high not just for California, but for Brown himself.
“If the governor doesn’t win with Proposition 30, his political capital probably rapidly declines,” Republican political consultant Rob Stutzman told CapRadio at the time.
Yet on Election Night Proposition 30 won with 55 percent of the vote.
“We have a vote of the people — I think the only place in America where a state actually said, let’s raise our taxes for our kids, for our schools, for our California dream,” Brown proclaimed triumphantly that night at a victory party in Sacramento.
“More money is better than less money”
Brown bet big on Prop. 30, and it paid off.
“He gave it everything he had,” said Republican political consultant Beth Miller. “The political capital that increased as a result of Prop 30 certainly allowed him to pursue an agenda that was uniquely his."
First came a new school funding formula that sent more money to districts with the biggest challenges, more money for the state’s universities to hold off tuition hikes, and a Medi-Cal expansion under the Affordable Care Act.
Later, after a cakewalk of a re-election campaign, Brown pushed some very hard votes through the Legislature — including big climate change bills and a gas tax increase to fund transportation projects.
All the while, he managed to stash away billions of dollars in reserves each year.
“Just as he gets to take credit for the passage of Prop 30 because he was the primary voice in support of it, he would’ve paid the price as being somebody who lost Prop 30 had it failed,” said John Pérez, the Assembly speaker at the time of Proposition 30.
“We wouldn’t have had the revenues to do some of the investments that he’s been able to make,” Pérez added. “Nor would we have had the revenues to fund the Rainy Day Fund to the extent that it’s funded.”
Proposition 30 also paved the way for future ballot measure victories. The governor convinced voters to overhaul California’s criminal justice sentencing laws and reject a bid to repeal the gas tax increase.
“He established a level of credibility with the voters, where he said, we’re gonna do this tax increase, this is what we’re gonna spend it on,” said Dana Williamson, who served as Brown’s cabinet secretary and later his outside political consultant. “And so when he’d go back on another issue, he was just credible on it and people listened to him.”
In an exit interview with Capital Public Radio, Brown agreed with the premise that Proposition 30 was a pivotal moment in his governorship.
“Had it failed, we wouldn’t have had money to do many of the things that I was able to do,” he said. “And it would’ve created a more contentious environment.”
After all, he points out, “More money is better than less money.”
A lesson Arnold Schwarzenegger learned all too well — and one Gavin Newsom may be about to find out.