01/04/2013 03:37 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

California's Futurist Agenda: A Tale of Three Governors

Governor Jerry Brown is working on the new California state budget, the first in more than a decade to be free of the state's deep chronic fiscal crisis, thanks to the big 11-point win in November for his Proposition 30 revenue initiative, and on an expansive agenda of major future-oriented issues he began pushing even when he had a massive budget deficit to deal with two years ago.

It's an agenda -- renewable energy and energy efficiency, climate change, high-speed rail, bioscience, cutting edge research, water conveyance and conservation, regulatory reform, reform of education financing -- which he intends to keep California in its familiar position at the edge of history.

And it's an agenda which his two most immediate predecessors, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Gray Davis, in large measure promoted themselves, providing a sense of future-oriented continuity amidst all the fiscal distress and hyper-partisan tumult which marked the last decade here.

Then Attorney General Jerry Brown discussed Arnold Schwarzenegger's climate and energy policies in a November 2007 appearance in San Francisco.*

In his first two terms as governor in the 1970s and early 1980s, Brown blazed the early path on renewable energy and energy efficiency, rail, water, cutting edge research, even climate.

When his former chief of staff Davis ended 16 years of Republican governorships in 1999, he picked up the banner on renewable energy (establishing the nation's biggest renewable energy requirement), high-speed rail (getting a big bond act through the legislature), and climate (signing the nation's first law drastically cutting tailpipe emissions of greenhouse gases). This latter bill would bring Schwarzenegger and Brown, as governor and attorney general in the late 2000s, together repeatedly in legal fights against the Bush/Cheney Administration which, seeing the effect it could have on national policy given California's strategic market, an effect which was realized in the Obama Administration, was out to destroy the legislation.

By that point, Schwarzenegger and legislative allies had made the tailpipe emissions law -- which makes cars more fuel efficient and cleaner all around -- a cornerstone of the state's landmark climate change program. Schwarzenegger also dramatically ramped up Davis's already expansive renewable energy requirement, and became one of the nation's biggest champions of high-speed rail, pushing hard till the very end of his term two years ago. He also championed bioscience through California's world-leading stem cell research program and got the legislature to pass the first major water program since the days of Jerry and Pat Brown. (Which program is being recalibrated.) Among other things.

Again, all this in the midst of political trauma and the great global recession.

For all his visionary aspect, Brown is also a notable pragmatist, as I note frequently in my writings about him. A certain degree of pragmatism is what secures the ability to practice futurism, after all. But still, there are those who remain confused, at least according to the Los Angeles Times, which reported recently on Brown's "flummoxing pragmatism."

Following two recent articles in the LA Times -- which shows some signs of being acquired this year by Rupert Murdoch, which would make things quite interesting indeed -- on Brown changing course and trimming his environmental sails by encouraging continued oil drilling in California, Brown reminded me that what he's doing is actually nothing new.

"I promoted, as governor in the '70s, independent oil drilling in California and certainly wanted the state to get the max revenues from the Long Beach oil fields," he noted. "That means big bucks for higher ed capital outlay."

California's storied public university system has taken major hits since the dot-com bust. But even as Governors Arnold Schwarzenegger and Gray Davis before him, struggled, as Brown did when he took office anew, with the overall state budget, they pushed forward on much of the future-oriented agenda Brown is pursuing today.

Some imagine that Brown is at last embracing the way of his father, the legendary late Governor Pat Brown, widely credited as the builder of modern California, in developing what might be called an Edifice Complex. But that's not quite it.

Jerry Brown famously differed with his father -- whom I knew pretty well, last lunching with him less than a year before he died -- earlier in his life but later developed more of an expressed appreciation for Pat's way of doing things and what Jerry called "the family business." But pop psychology doesn't capture the dynamic in question.

This Governor Brown is more into what might be described as developing the infrastructure of the future. Rather than preside over the building of dozens of nuclear power plants, as was the wont of the big utilities during his first tenure as governor during the 1970s and early 1980s, he put California on a course of energy efficiency (known in those days as energy conservation) and renewable energy.

As a result, California became for many years the most efficient user of power in the country. Governors of both parties kept on the efficiency path, though they strayed off of renewables. Brown's former chief of staff, Gray Davis, renewed the renewable course, and Brown's predecessor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, ramped things up dramatically, turning the path into a superhighway. Brown, naturally, is continuing that.

Then Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed California's landmark climate change program into law in San Francisco in September 2006.*

His focus on high-speed rail, which he shares with Schwarzenegger and Davis, is a focus not on expanding existing transport infrastructure, perpetuating the old and increasingly expensive development pattern and the fossil fuel economy which underlies it, but developing a new path. A new path in America, that is, which is why he is working closely with the Obama Administration on it. In Europe and Asia, high-speed rail is well-established.

California's high-speed rail agency was actually begun under then Republican Governor Pete Wilson in the '90s. When Democrat Davis came in, he ramped things up and got a major bond issue passed by the legislature.

That was deferred to the favorable election year of 2008 by high-speed rail champion Schwarzenegger, where it passed with 53% of the vote in a campaign managed by Brown and Davis friend David Townsend despite the onset of the great global recession.

Schwarzenegger then aggressively pursued billions in federal funding, partnering with the Obama Administration as more conservative Republican governors listened to the Tea Party instead.

There have been some more Tea Party-inspired sounds of late.

House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, the Bakersfield Republican who not all that long ago was state Assembly minority leader, and a modern moderate conservative, is talking against the state's high-speed rail program. As he's made his practice of late while ascending in a very right-wing House Republican caucus.

But unless Republicans have a long-term stranglehold on the House, the talk doesn't have much effect other than providing some rhetorical fodder for die-hard bullet train opponents.

It makes the mistake of assuming that a reactionary Congress will be in place for decades to come. When in reality it was just a few years ago that major federal funds were enacted to fund the first phase of the program.

In a November 2007 appearance, former Governor Gray Davis discussed his governorship, that of Arnold Schwarzenegger, and prospects for former boss and the once and possibly future governor, Jerry Brown.*

Had the 2010 elections for the U.S. House of Representatives gone differently, the objection would not exist. Had President Barack Obama not blown the first debate, things could well look very different already.

It's only the advent of the Republican House in the 2010 elections that put a serious crimp in federal support for the project. Since then, Tea Party Republicans and their allies in the old energy economy -- and let's be blunt, the order should be reversed because old energy economy interests have hard right Republicans fronting for them at every turn -- have shot down the Obama Administration's high-speed rail projects everywhere but California.

This is a struggle that has taken place, on and off, for decades, as the rest of the advanced industrial world moved ahead with rail. The same sorts of folks who hit Brown on high-speed rail hit him during his first governorship for being a "Moonbeam" by pushing renewable energy.

Actually, and quite ironically, you don't have to look much farther than the crowning infrastructural achievement of the old energy economy to see that the course of huge infrastructure projects does not run smooth.

That's the Interstate Highway System, naturally.

It was originally supposed to be completed in 12 years. In the end, it took three times as long, at five times the cost projected in 1956 when the massive project began.

President Dwight Eisenhower had wanted to finance the project with bonds paid off from the proceeds of gasoline taxes, which had gone directly to the treasury. Congress instead decided to go with a pay-as-you-go approach. Oops.

The point being that the course of infrastructure development frequently does not run very smoothly, even with something as simple as building highways in the long ago age of cheap oil.

Brown ignored heavy pressure to drop California's high-speed rail program in order to "save" Proposition 30, the key to his fiscal policy. Prop 30 won in a landslide and groundbreaking will take place on California high-speed rail in a matter of months.

Brown received plenty of advice, mostly unsolicited, to dump high-speed rail as a way of "saving" his Prop 30 revenue initiative, even from some of his own supporters. He resisted it, of course.

For one thing, you never take points off the board. Especially when most of the folks giving the advice are against your agenda to begin with. For another, Prop 30 was clearly there to be won. Which Brown proceeded to do.

California's high-speed rail program will see its ground-breaking this year as construction on the Central Valley spine of the project begins.

Brown is also pursuing his variant of education reform.

In particular, he is focused on a new approach on school funding which will redirect some funds from rich school districts to poor ones, including those with students challenged by the English language. His plan, still under wraps, will apparently not take existing funds away from anyone, since Prop 30 revenues will buttress all districts.

It will also provide much more local control by turning much that is now specific categorical spending defined by the state into funds which the school districts themselves can use as they see fit.

Of course, for all the futurism being brought into the present day, there is far less lofty politicking to be dealt with.

In their brief December mini-session, new super-majority Democrats avoided coming off as though they simply can't wait to raise taxes here, there, and everywhere, not to mention spend like they did in the dot-com boom days. But only just. (There was even a now withdrawn bill to triple the car tax back to what it was briefly in 2003, an idea at historic lows in voter support, with nearly 80% against.) The presentation needs some more work.

They can't simply rely on public perception that Brown will respect the new revenue he's just won and hold the line on spending, i.e., be the adult in the room, while the budget recovers.

Brown intends to hold the line on state spending, despite the ending of California's chronic budget crisis with the smashing passage of his Proposition 30 revenue initiative. In the final vote tally released by California Secretary of State Debra Bowen's office, Proposition 30 passed by a landslide vote of 55.4% to 44.6%, a nearly 11-point margin of victory. A general election record of 51% of Californians voted by mail.

Heartening as that was for him, Brown is still getting a handle on anomalous aspects of state government that proved troublesome in the campaign. After his internal audit showed that the extra money in the state parks department's coffer was not part of a larger pattern, that issue proved no more effective against Prop 30 than did the high-speed rail project, which is funded from different sources.

But a mystery remained. How long had the practice of squirreling away tens of millions in user fees been going at at State Parks? The answer, as I'd suggested a few times, turned out to be since 1993, during then Republican Governor Pete Wilson's first term. (Not that Wilson was any more responsible than the governors of both parties who followed him -- Davis, Schwarzenegger, and Brown.)

A more consequential concern is that state and especially local government public pension systems have obligations well in excess of their ability to pay. Brown made a start on that last year with legislation, building on some earlier moves by Schwarzenegger, paring things back for new state hires.

The resulting bill was less than Brown proposed, his negotiating position undercut by the failure of advocates of public pension reform to mount much in the way of a campaign for their own more draconian proposal.

Many Democrats, including some around Brown, note that pension reformers haven't kept up their end. They wonder if public pension critics decided to pursue a "chaos theory" approach of trying to crash the system and seek change out of the ashes by defeating Prop 30 instead of the harder work of developing and promoting well-considered public policy.

Whether that's the case or not (there is still much that is mysterious about the sources of funding for No on 30), the pension issue, while a minor factor in the near term state budget, will loom larger as the decade goes on. If critics of the system have something to say besides Tea Party rhetoric, they should start getting their act together.

Meanwhile, California's act on its future agenda is coming together this year, the first without a chronic budget crisis in more than a decade. Had Brown, Schwarzenegger, and Davis put off their various moves as a result of fiscal crisis and hyper-partisan discord, all of it would be at square one now, rather than well underway as it is.

"It is," as Brown likes to say, "possible to walk and chew gum at the same time."

* All videos New West Notes.

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