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Golis: When frugal Brown leaves, will spendthrift ways return?

Gov. Jerry Brown on his ranch near Williams. (BRIAN VAN DER BRUG / Los Angeles Times)

PETE GOLIS,

PETE GOLIS IS A COLUMNIST FOR THE PRESS DEMOCRAT.

A year from now, someone other than Jerry Brown will be the governor of California. Having served as governor for 16 of the past 44 years, Brown and his wife, Anne Gust Brown, are finishing a house (solar, of course) on the family ranch in the foothills west of Williams in Colusa County.

If this sounds unconventional, well, surprise!

“This land and this place put me in touch with the way people lived before,” Brown told the Los Angeles Times.

It is forgotten now, but it wasn’t so many years ago that California was tens of billion of dollars past broke. Critics said the largest state in the union had become ungovernable, consumed by special interest politics and a lack of common sense when it came to managing its finances.

For most of a decade, state government operated on the failed assumption that revenue would just keep going up and up and up. Then, when real life didn’t cooperate, a variety of budget gimmicks was deployed to paper over the shortfalls. At last, the day came when there was nowhere to hide.

In his second time around as governor, beginning in 2011, Brown put an end to all that. As a Press Democrat editorial noted last week, Brown “is positioned to leave the state in better financial shape than he found it.”

When Brown introduced his 2018-2019 budget plan last week, he cautioned against overspending, warning that an economic recession is inevitable.

“California has faced 10 recessions since World War II, and we must prepare for the 11th. Yes, we have had some very good years and program spending has increased steadily,” he told reporters. “Let’s not blow it now.”

Observers said it was just the same ol’ frugal Jerry — which only proves that observers have short memories, too.

Critics say Brown should have done something by now about the state’s convoluted tax system. And there’s no doubt state and local governments rely too much on a regressive sales tax and on an income tax that can produce wild swings in revenue from one year to the next.

It’s also true that accidents of history have left California with a hodgepodge of state and local agencies — a system both costly and redundant. We’re trying to prosper in the 21st century with a government cobbled together over the two previous centuries. Sonoma County’s many school districts, for example, trace their beginnings to a time when students arrived at school by horse and buggy.

We need to do better.

Here’s the problem: We live in a time of distrust toward most public institutions, and state government is no exception. People are angry because government is broken, and government remains broken because people are angry.

At this point, Proposition 13 and other measures to constrain the discretion of government remain sacrosanct so far as the majority of voters is concerned, and if you doubt it, ask your favorite Democratic representative why he or she hasn’t done something about it.

People pay less attention to state government these days. Cynicism toward government has become endemic, and news organizations — scrambling to find a new business model amidst a rush of new technologies — have reduced their presence in the Capitol.

Still, this moment should not pass without making note of Brown’s unique place in California history.

He was 36 years old when he first became governor, an iconoclast with an intelligence and curiosity uncommon among politicians.

He will be 80 years old when he completes his second stint as governor, a time in which he applied all his experience to diverting the worst impulses of other politicians.

Ironically, both Republicans and Democrats will be seeking to erode the state’s newly restored, rainy-day reserves. Republicans want to use reserves to grant refunds to taxpayers. Democrats will be pressed by special interest groups to spend more.

Given the uncertain impacts of a new federal tax law and the frightening costs of disasters here and in Southern California, both approaches seem shortsighted, if not foolish. Even if economists can’t agree when it will occur, a recession and a resulting decline in state revenues will be coming our way.

While urging restraint, Brown deflected questions about his own legacy. As the son of a governor, he knows not many governors are long remembered.

Over time, California needs to begin the difficult work of reforming a tax system that is neither fair nor reliable, and it needs to reorganize government in ways that improve the delivery of essential services.

The state also needs to continue Brown’s efforts in promoting education, health care, alternative energy, environmental protection and measures to curb climate change — making clear that when it comes to the Trump administration, California chooses to go its own way.

All the while, it will be important that future governors remain mindful that government resources are not infinite. It is not compassionate to spend more money than you have. It is only an invitation to worse hardships in future years.

Jerry Brown will deliver his 16th State of the State Address on Thursday. Legacy or not, Californians should be grateful to him for returning state government from the brink of insolvency. In the past seven years, he taught us that good intentions and sound budgeting are not the same thing.

Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at golispd@gmail.com.