Gov. Jerry Brown defies typical California budget buffoonery

There isn't a single governor since 1850 that hasn't bitched about how the state could do a better job managing its money—and then promptly tears through the checkbook

Greg Lucas’ state-politics column Capitol Lowdown appears every other week in SN&R. He also blogs at

King Arthur and a bunch of his knights are whooping it up after a big victory that unites the Britons. There’s a lot of celebratory sword-clashing, armor-clattering and carrying on—until Merlin commands them to zip it and harken unto him.

“Look upon this moment. Savor it!” says Merlin, as portrayed by Nicol Williamson in Excalibur. “For it is the doom of men that they forget.”

How many times since King Artie, or even the release of Excalibur in 1981, have folks forgotten where they came from, where they meant to go, what led to disaster in the past, who to trust and how to avoid being scammed by sleazoids?

How many times has flood, fire, famine, pestilence, temblor, typhoon, tornado, tyranny and war wiped out cities, countries, civilizations and then, after a collective “Wow, major bummer,” the victims go back to the same behavior that guarantees they’re going to receive yet another all-world ass-kicking.

So, when Gov. Jerry Brown said in his recent State of Disbelief speech that he’s going to learn from history and not piss away the big mound of cash California has in hand on a bunch of stuff that keeps costing money after the state’s flushness fizzles, it elicited a few titters, some polite chuckles.

There isn’t a single governor, Democrat or Republican, since 1850 that hasn’t bitched about how the state could do a better job managing its money—and then, in most cases, promptly followed that up by tearing through the checkbook. Except Brown, however, legitimately appreciates history. Paraphrasing the Nazi officer investigating George C. Scott in Patton: The secret to Brown is the past.

A tip-off might be that he was a classics major in college. Second, at three-quarters-of-a-century, he qualifies as a historical figure himself. Buildings of lesser vintage have been placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The budget Brown presented in January clearly demonstrates he’s trying to avoid mistakes by previous corner-office occupants. His spending plan is short on spending and big on saving. To avoid the cause of several previous budget meltdowns, Brown advocates a rainy-day fund of $1.7 billion to cushion the state against the whipsaw of capital-gains cash-outs by the monied folks whose tax payments comprise the state’s principal revenue source.

Brown needn’t go back to the time of Govs. Peter Burnett or Romualdo Pacheco to find a spot-on example of the consequences of using temporary money to pay for permanent expenses. Brown’s former chief of staff, Gray Davis, used a windfall of more than $12 billion in tax revenue from shareholders cashing out the dot-com run-ups to pay for ongoing programs, helping create a record $35 billion gap between revenues and spending commitments, and getting himself recalled for his trouble.

Nor does Brown have to dust off some pithy oration by Cicero to know, from the recent past, that talking tough on thriftiness—creating at least an appearance of parsimony—wins praise from the parasitic entities that rate the risk of investing in California’s debt. Their praise, in turn, boosts investment, which then helps the spending plan’s professed solvency become even more solvent.

And finally, Brown knows from the last time he was governor, back when ABBA and Barry Manilow were big, that politicians running for re-election who can show at least some scintilla of evidence they kept or tried to keep their previous campaign pledges—have a far stronger chance of getting re-elected.

But there’s a big difference between learning from the past and living in it.

On page 152 of his budget, Brown riffs on the crowd of California baby boomers 65 and older growing by more than 1,000 persons a day, each day for the next 15 years. They “reshape society as they begin to leave the labor force,” Brown says matter-of-factly. And that’s it. The budget says nothing more about this far-reaching demographic shift.

We can’t have forgotten about it already?