Brown’s clues for next term

By Thomas D. Elias

Gov. Jerry Brown hasn’t yet said whether he’ll run for a fourth overall term. Aides like to chortle that, “Well, he has until the March 7 filing deadline to decide.”

But as he travels the state lately, giving short and punchy speeches, Brown has dropped strong hints he will indeed seek another four years in the Capitol and has given some clues as to how his next term might look.

To no one’s surprise, another four years of Brown would probably resemble the last four, but without draconian budget cuts for everything from universities to state parks and care for the indigent and frail elderly that he made while getting rid of the $26 billion budget deficit he inherited from Arnold Schwarzenegger.

But even with the budget situation much improved, don’t expect any push for big spending. In fact, expect pushback from Brown if liberal Democrats in the Legislature attempt to spend all or most of the surplus the bipartisan state legislative analyst predicts.

Brown doesn’t do many PowerPoint presentations, but he does like to show one slide, looking like a jagged chart of the ups and downs of a single stock. This one shows the extreme peaks and valleys of California’s take from capital gains taxes over the last 20 years.

“A lot of our budget cycles are due to the volatility of capital gains,” Brown said late last fall. “We are at a peak now, not quite as high as the all-time high. The question is, when do we get to the next valley. It will come. So we will have a rainy day fund. We will spend where appropriate, but we’ll be tough and keep things pretty even. Money today doesn’t necessarily mean money tomorrow.”

Anyone hoping the state’s impending windfall will mean a repeat of the almost $2 billion in “prosperity dividend” checks handed out in 2000 by then-Gov. Gray Davis, will be sorely disappointed. Davis also cut some taxes when he had a surplus, notably the vehicle registration fee, which backfired on him. Brown won’t.

Also, expect Brown to keep granting more authority to local governments and school boards. Always one to enjoy obscure historical references, he cited the Renaissance scholar Michel de Montaigne, who once said “laws should be rare and be abstract when we have them.” By which Brown meant, he will try to give city councils, county boards and schools a looser leash than he already has in, for example, erasing some formulas for how state education money must be spent on the local level.

Brown said he is optimistic about the state’s future, pointing out that, “Over 50 percent of the venture capital in America comes to California; California gets four to five times more patents every year than any other state.

“But we don’t know exactly what we’ll invent next. Like (Gaspar de) Portola and (Junipero) Serra, we don’t know what we’re going to get. They had no idea a Gold Rush was coming. Who (back then) knew anything about technology and biotech?”

Not that Brown glosses over problems. He’s trying to deal with prison overcrowding, and, he said, “We also have problems, big problems, with pensions, roads and climate change. Sure we have issues, but we have enlightened, dedicated people …, which is why living in California is a great gift and why this state is still a model.”