Deep into his fifteenth year leading the nation’s largest state, Gov. Jerry Brown practically shuddered when a reporter asked him about his legacy.
“I don’t have a legacy. I don’t know what a legacy is. This is a media construct,” he said at a June 2017 press conference.
Brown, 80, can’t avoid a public accounting of his two stints in the governor’s office much longer. After all, he’s the state’s oldest, sixth-youngest and longest-serving leader.
Brown on Tuesday is making time for some reflection at the Sacramento Press Club, where he’ll be interviewed by biographer Miriam Pawel. He leaves office on Jan. 7, 2019, closing a career in the public that spans five decades.
His father, the late Gov. Pat Brown, has a stretch of the State Water Project named after him. Jerry Brown does not yet have that kind of tangible monument, but his policies will continue to shape California budgets, taxes and environmental regulations long after he retires to the family ranch in Colusa County.
Here’s a look at five key issues where Jerry Brown sought to leave a mark on California government:
Climate change crusader
Barely five months into his first stint as governor, in May 1975, Brown took on the oil industry, signing a bill that eliminated a tax break known as the oil depletion allowance. “It’s symbolic of a new spirit that is sweeping across the state,” he said at a Capitol bill-signing ceremony.
It was the start of a decades-long journey in which Brown has built as a reputation as a pollution fighter and champion of environmental causes. In recent years some environmentalists say he’s gone soft on Big Oil, but as his final term ends he’s become better known as a globetrotting crusader on climate change.
In his first two terms Brown adhered to the philosophies espoused by British economist E.F. Schumacher, author of the bestselling book “Small is Beautiful.” He shelved giant highway construction projects and signed into law groundbreaking tax incentives for rooftop solar-energy installation. His appointees to the Air Resources Board led a successful showdown with the auto industry that resulted in a crackdown on tailpipe emissions of nitrogen oxide, a major factor in smog formation.
With Brown’s backing, “they stuck to their guns, adopted the standards over the opposition of the auto industry,” said V. John White, a Sacramento clean-technology consultant and former legislative aide. “Those early years set a tone.”
White said the smog fight enhanced Brown’s belief in technology as a force for good – something he would embrace when he returned to the Capitol in 2011.
California’s efforts against climate change began when Arnold Schwarzenegger was governor but took on greater urgency on Brown’s watch. He extended California’s first-in-the-nation cap-and-trade program, which puts a price on carbon emissions. He signed a bill requiring electric utilities to go completely carbon-free by 2045.
He became a familiar figure on the world stage, appearing at the Paris climate summit in 2015 and carrying the banner for California at climate change conferences in Germany, Russia and elsewhere. He delivered keynote remarks at the Vatican’s climate summit in November 2017, and hosted his own summit in San Francisco in September.
Global warming brought Brown into increasing conflict with President Donald Trump, who has been working to roll back greenhouse gas emissions standards implemented nearly a decade ago. Trump’s moves represent an assault on California’s unique authority under federal law to establish its own air-pollution regulations.
Brown has wasted little time blasting the president, calling his actions “an unconscionable gift to polluters.”
Some critics, however, said it was hypocritical to crusade against climate change while approving more than 23,000 new oil and gas drilling permits in the past eight years.
“It’s literally drill, baby, drill,” said Jamie Court of the activist group Consumer Watchdog.
A budget back in the black
The skinflint governor who refused a chauffeur finally has a budget full of black ink to show for the penny-pinching image he cultivated over his 16 years leading the state.
Brown is handing a projected $14.8 billion surplus to Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom. It’s the first time in 43 years that an outgoing governor has passed a surplus on to his successor.
The last time that happened was 1975, when Brown inherited a surplus from Ronald Reagan.
Brown broke the cycle of governors passing down deficits by riding a booming economy, raising taxes and nixing some of the high-priced programs Democratic lawmakers wanted to expand as the state recovered from the last recession.
Brown began his second run as governor in 2011 while the Great Recession wreaked havoc on state finances. He faced a $27 billion deficit that year, a crisis that spurred the Legislature to ask voters for a sales tax increase and cut pension benefits for new public employees.
Brown also has persuaded the Legislature to create a “rainy day fund” where lawmakers could stash money they’d need in a recession. The account is full, with the state amassing $16 billion in reserves as Brown leaves office.
By any measure California still has serious financial challenges. Its primary pension systems are badly underfunded. Its high-speed rail program is behind schedule, and its costs are well above expectations. What’s more, its tax structure is inherently volatile because it’s closely tied to the earnings of wealthy residents.
But the surplus and reserves are a gift for Newsom that Brown did not leave for Republican George Deukmejian in 1983, when Brown departed office with a $1.5 billion deficit.
The 1985 deficit in some ways stemmed from Proposition 13, the popular 1978 initiative that capped property tax rates. It scrambled the state’s finances by stripping a revenue source.
Republicans in 2010 tried to hang the red ink on Brown when he campaigned against Meg Whitman, running ads that said Brown turned “a surplus into a huge deficit” that he bequeathed to Deukmejian.
Brown at press conferences seemed to happily cast himself again as thrifty. Throughout 2018 he stressed that a downturn is just around the corner, and the savings the state accumulated under his watch should be preserved to cushion inevitable cuts in a recession.
“What’s out there,” he said in January, “is darkness, uncertainty, decline and recession, so ‘Good luck, baby.’”
From harsh sentences to bail reform
Brown’s legacy on changing the state’s criminal justice system is wide-ranging, and stems in part from his rejection of policies he championed during his first stint as governor from 1975 until 1983.
Brown approved the concept of determinate sentencing during his first two terms, a law that set rigid sentencing requirements for offenses that critics say contributed to prison overcrowding in California.
Since returning to office, however, Brown advanced a series of reforms that included the elimination of the bail system for suspects and that gave judges more authority over who can be released from custody while awaiting trial.
Brown signed into law a series of bills aimed at reducing the number of juvenile offenders who can be tried as adults, and establishing the age of 12 as the minimum age for prosecution in juvenile court unless the suspect is accused of murder or rape.
The governor implemented a series of voter-approved initiatives, including Proposition 47 in 2014, which reduced penalties for crimes such as grand theft, shoplifting, writing bad checks and drug possession.
Those crimes formerly were treated as felonies, but were reduced to misdemeanors if they involved property worth $950 or less.
Brown also backed Proposition 57, which passed in 2016 and allowed prison officials to consider parole sooner for inmates convicted of nonviolent crimes.
Both measures were aimed at reducing the state’s prison overcrowding crisis, as was Proposition 36, the 2012 measure that allowed inmates convicted of a third strike to seek re-sentencing if their crime was not considered serious or violent.
But one of the most dramatic changes came with “realignment,” which was passed by lawmakers in 2011 and shifted responsibility for some parolees from state prison officials to county jails.
That helped Brown, who had been ordered by the U.S. Supreme Court to reduce California’s overcrowding problem, to bring state prison populations into compliance a full year before the court’s deadline.
The court had ordered the governor to reduce prison populations to 137.5 percent of capacity by Feb. 28, 2016. The state achieved that in January 2015, when it reported housing 113,463 inmates.
That compared to November 2006, when the prison system was at 200.2 percent of capacity and housed 162,804 inmates.
Water projects lost in the Delta
“I want to get s--- done,” Gov. Brown said in 2012, when asked about his controversial plan to build two huge water tunnels underneath the fragile Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
When it comes to California water policy, Brown has tried to live up to that motto.
“In water, there really has been no more involved governor than Jerry Brown,” said Jeff Mount, a water expert at the Public Policy Institute of California. “Whether you like his policies or not, this is the most engaged governor in a generation. ...The guy always focused on water, both in his first two terms and in his third and fourth.”
The controversial $17.1 billion tunnels project, known officially as California WaterFix, could break ground as early as next year. It’s arguably Brown’s signature piece of water policy, but it’s not his only one.
In his last two terms, Brown has enacted some of the most significant water policies decades. He signed a law in 2014 that put restrictions on groundwater use for the first time in California. His administration also has pushed for sweeping reforms to leave more water in the state’s major rivers to aid ailing fish populations.
Few issues, though, are as tied to Brown’s and his family’s California water legacy as a Delta “conveyance” system, which eventually morphed into the tunnels.
In the 1960s, Brown’s father, Gov. Pat Brown, got the State Water Project built. The statewide system of canals, pumps and the massive Oroville Dam funnel water south through the Delta from Northern California. While it’s played a key role in California’s meteoric rise to become the world’s fifth largest economy, the State Water Project was never fully completed. The second phase included a canal around the Delta that would have functioned in much the same way as the tunnels.
In the early 1980s, Jerry Brown advocated for a “peripheral canal” that would have finished the job his father started. Voters killed the plan in 1982, dealing Brown a major blow.
The Schwarzenegger administration resurrected the idea in the form of the Delta tunnels, and Brown has embraced the project with zeal. He played an important role in getting California’s largest water agency to vote in April to bankroll the project, a key hurdle.
Late in his last term, Brown found himself dealing with a crisis directly tied to his family’s water legacy.
In early 2017, a crater formed in the center of the Oroville Dam’s spillway, prompting the frantic evacuation of 188,000 people. In the nearly two years since, Brown’s administration has overseen more than $1.1 billion in emergency expenses and repairs. He signed legislation and enacted policies that seek to improve dam safety across the state.
But early this year, the team team of independent experts blasted the state for doing a poor job building the structure during Pat Brown’s era. The team also criticized the state for neglecting maintenance over decades. Meanwhile, the federal government just announced the dam may need a major upgrade — a costly prospect that Brown’s successors will likely have to address.
A friend to unions who wants pensions ‘on the chopping block’
Brown delivered on a big promise to unions when he first took office, signing the law that empowered them to negotiate contracts for California’s public employees.
That 1977 collective bargaining law will forever win gratitude for Brown from public employee union leaders, but he’s leaving office the second time with a high-profile attack on pensions that worries government workers all over the state.
Brown’s lawyers earlier this month sought to dent the so-called California Rule, the legal precedent that prevents government agencies from withdrawing almost any kind of promised retirement benefit without offering compensation to offset a potential loss in income.
The argument unfolded at the California Supreme Court, where Brown’s team defended a 2012 pension law he signed that reduced potential retirement earnings for public employees hired after Jan. 1, 2013. The law also required workers to kick in more money from their paychecks to fund their pensions.
Brown throughout 2018 characterized the California Rule as a shackle on government finances, restricting wages for today’s workers and threatening public services. In January, he said public employee pensions would be “on the chopping block” in the next recession.
His comments unsettle unions, which have joined together to write legal briefs and file lawsuits challenging parts of Brown’s pension law. The state Supreme Court early next year is expected to issue a decision in the most recent case, which was filed by the union that represents state firefighters.
Outside of pensions, Brown was a reliable friend to labor throughout his 16 years leading the state. He was an ally to Cesar Chavez in the 1970s, when he signed the Agricultural Labor Relations Act and approved bills that expanded collective bargaining rights.
Unions supported his campaigns in 2010 and in 2014. They also backed his initiative that sought to plug a budget deficit with a new sales tax.
Brown nonetheless extracted pension cutbacks and other concessions from state employee unions during the recession. One of them has workers contributing a new deduction from their paychecks to fund retiree health care.
More recently, he approved a cluster of sweet, short-term contracts for prison guards, scientists and engineers that netted them 5 percent raises with no new givebacks. He also signed a number of laws in 2017 and 2018 designed to help public employee unions recruit and retain workers in the face of new, well-funded campaigns asking workers to opt out of their labor organizations.