Jerry Brown Leaves California Stronger

(The Bloomberg View) -- When Jerry Brown returned to the governor’s office in January 2011, California had a projected budget deficit of $27 billion. As he departs in January, Brown will leave a budget reserve even larger — more than $29 billion. The state’s legislative analyst’s office has called the anticipated surplus “extraordinary.”

The same can be said of Brown himself. The scion of another governor, Brown captured imaginations as a bold young politician when he first took office in  1975. His second stint as governor captured something more valuable and lasting: respect.

With more than 39 million residents, California is not just the most populous state, it’s the nation’s largest issuer of municipal bonds, the fifth-largest economy in the world, and, under Brown, a global leader in combating the pollution that drives climate change. In the past two years, he stepped in to fill a White House void as America’s leading climate diplomat.

Brown made targeted cuts in state spending while increasing funds for education and health care. He deployed his political capital to raise taxes on the wealthy. He invested in the future, committing his state to 100 percent carbon-free power by 2045, the most ambitious target of any major economy. California is now home to a thriving clean-energy industry.

Many of California’s problems remain, including hundreds of millions of dollars in unfunded pensions, a high poverty rate and extreme income inequality. The always-tough decisions on allocating scarce water are getting tougher. The forest fires ravaging the state north and south are a product of climate change but also reckless development in hazardous locales. A dire shortage of affordable housing fuels both homelessness and high rents across the state.

Still, in his four terms as governor, Brown has been a nimble thinker and a prodigious doer, signing almost 20,000 bills into law. Between leaving office as California’s 34th governor and returning as its 39th, he had the humility and dedication to serve two terms as mayor of Oakland, the state’s eighth-largest city. His local experience made him an even shrewder governor.   

With the quality of leadership in Washington at an all-time low, Brown, 80, established Sacramento as a stark counterpoint, a capital where ethics, idealism and pragmatism could march confidently into the future. After his extraordinary run, the governor will leave his state strengthened to meet future challenges. It’s hard to imagine a better model for Governor-elect Gavin Newsom than the exceptional Jerry Brown.

Editorials are written by the Bloomberg View editorial board.

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