06/26/2022

The Mixed Ledger of Jerry Brown

Jerry Brown steps down next month as California’s governor, and to much of the country, he is West Coast liberalism personified, having battled the Trump administration on climate change, immigration and other hot-button issues. But in the state capital of Sacramento, the liberal lion has made his mark in a different and perhaps surprising way: balancing California’s unwieldy state budget.

Mr. Brown earned a reputation for fiscal prudence through political will and good fortune. He rejected new spending from his own Democratic Party, paid down a wall of debt, campaigned for voter-approved tax increases and passed a constitutional amendment requiring new saving during flush times. He also presided over a sustained economic boom that yielded $16 billion worth of reserves, despite ambitious spending on education and other priorities.

But bigger worries loom for a post-Brown California, even by the governor’s own admission. Experts and critics say he hasn’t addressed serious structural problems that could overwhelm his legacy—including shoring up the state’s tax base and ensuring that it can meet its spending and pension commitments. Even some critics say that Mr. Brown has performed an interesting and sometimes impressive balancing act, but they caution that his success in short-term management hasn’t been accompanied by a serious effort to tackle long-term problems.

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