Brown’s second stint as governor (a post he also held between 1975 and 1983) is proceeding more successfully than his first. His standing in the polls has never been higher, the Public Policy Institute of California has found. He gets universally high marks from liberals and centrists for his conception and promotion of Proposition 30, while business and conservatives look to him to rein in the more-progressive instincts of the legislature. What liberals would like is for Brown to consider still more tax increases — say, the imposition of an oil severance tax, which California alone among oil-producing states does not have — to restore state services to pre-2008 levels. State spending is still 18 percent less than it was in 2006, and California has 11 percent fewer teachers than it had then.
But Brown will have none of this. “The answer is no on taxes,” he told me in a recent interview. The annual “state spending on schools [and universities] will go from $47 billion to $63 billion in the next five years” with the funds from Proposition 30. “I think we should digest this great leap forward before we contemplate anything further.”
The governor is committed, though, to certain big-ticket green-infrastructure projects — in particular, a water project for the Central Valley and a high-speed rail line from Los Angeles to the Bay Area. In this, he is following in the footsteps of the state’s master builder, his father, Edmund “Pat” Brown, who as governor raised taxes that he used to turn the state into America’s postwar industrial Eden, expanding the University of California system and building freeways and aqueducts.
The son took pains during his first go-round as governor to differentiate his politics from his father’s. Brown was at the forefront of the first generation of post-New Deal neoliberals — a cohort that included Gary Hart and Paul Tsongas — who promoted environmentalism over growth and cultural liberalism over economic populism. With Brown, the tension between the two strands of liberalism at times seemed painfully Oedipal: As his father had embraced all rituals of the political life, so Brown took pleasure in shunning them.
Brown is the last of the 1970s neos still governing, and while he has adopted his father’s mantle of master builder — albeit for greener purposes — his resistance to convention, so apparent in his first tenure as governor, has expanded to include a resistance to novelty as well. Where he finds genuine technological breakthroughs, he wants to proceed “at mach speed”: He is pushing the University of California to offer more classes online, partly as a way to hold down spiraling costs to students.