When Jerry Brown won the governorship four years ago, nearly three decades after his first gubernatorial stint, it sparked limitless speculation about how he would approach the job.
Brown was rather erratic the first time around, evidently uninterested in day-to-day governing and preoccupied with perpetual quests for other offices.
During his 1975-83 governorship, Brown sought the presidency twice, ran for re-election once and ended his tenure with an unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate.
When he ran again for governor in 2010, the one-time wunderkind described himself as a political veteran who would devote himself to the job and bring adult supervision to a fractious Capitol.
More than three years into his second governorship and likely to win a landslide re-election this year, it’s evident that he wants to erase the “Governor Moonbeam” image and establish a respectable legacy for the history books.
Interestingly, however, almost everything Brown has pursued so far is an extension of what predecessor Arnold Schwarzenegger advocated – a bullet train, twin tunnels beneath the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, public employee pension reform, greenhouse gas reduction, temporary taxes to close a budget deficit, and a rainy-day fund to avoid future deficits.
Brown, seeking re-election as someone who has put state finances on an even keel, is pushing his own version of the latter.
Schwarzenegger became governor in 2003 promising to “cut up the credit cards,” close the state budget deficit and build reserves – very similar to what Brown pledged in 2010.
Schwarzenegger settled for a weak reserve fund early in his governorship, tried and failed to recoup later, overspent windfall revenue as he sought re-election in 2006, and finally bulldozed the Legislature into placing a rainy-day fund measure on the ballot, but left behind a big deficit for Brown.
The rainy-day fund Brown wants would replace – and weaken, critics say – the Schwarzenegger measure that has never been submitted to voters. But Brown is getting static from the same interests – public employee unions particularly – that fought his predecessor on the issue.
Opponents saw the reserve as a de facto spending limit when Schwarzenegger was seeking it, and haven’t changed their minds.
Brown’s effort not only echoes the battles that Schwarzenegger fought, but his own advocacy of a state spending limit in 1979 – a measure that voters passed, but that Brown’s Republican successor, George Deukmejian, watered down to impotence a decade later.
Had the 1979 spending limit remained in force, it likely would have prevented the budget deficits that plagued Deukmejian’s successors and that Brown is now trying to eliminate.
What goes around comes around, as Capitol old-timers are wont to say.
Dan Walters is a columnist for the Sacramento Bee. Reach him as firstname.lastname@example.org.