Campaign Check: Brown's Record As Governor

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The latest political ads in the race for governor attempt to spin an issue that everyone knew was going to be one of the key parts of the race: whether Jerry Brown was a good governor from 1975-1983... or a lousy one.

And not surprisingly, the answer depends on whose ad your watching. Neither side seems to be blatantly misstating the facts, but the packaging of those facts is where truth starts to bleed into opinion.

We discussed the ads on Brown's record on today's newsmagazine edition of The California Report, as part of our new gubernatorial race segment called "Campaign Check."

The topic is relevant for analysis this week because Jerry Brown himself brought it up, with Monday's launch of his first television commercial that's largely focused on those eight years between pet rocks and E.T.

The ad is chock full of claims about Brown's record, all easy enough to check. On the notion that "budgets were balanced," he's right... though of course it should be noted that the state can't legally enact a budget that runs a deficit. (And as others are pointing out, Brown himself hasn't always called one of his budget deals -- in 1982 -- "balanced.")

The Brown campaign, though, substantiates their point by claiming that in seven of the eight Brown gubernatorial years, the state had a budget surplus. Yes, but... those surpluses include funds left over from prior years. That's perfectly fine, but the leftover funds mask the fact that in four years (from the 1978-79 budget to the one for 1982-83) general fund expenses were higher than revenues actually collected, a phenomenon we've seen in the last few years, too.

The ad also touts "$4 billion in tax cuts" enacted by Brown. Well, here's where the role of a governor gets interesting, as many of the tax cuts the campaign mentions were in the form of laws signed by Brown but written by legislators. That's doesn't dismiss his role, but should remind everyone that governors can't take all of the credit. It should also be noted that a healthy portion of that $4 billion figure came from California finally indexing its state income taxes for inflation, an effort that many -- not just Brown -- helped make a reality.

(Interesting sidenote: the Brown campaign's attribution for the $4 billion is an AP news story from April 3, 1982. That same story goes on to say that tax cuts had helped leave California facing a large deficit that spring, and that Brown and legislative leaders were subsequently looking at a number of what we now would call 'budget gimmicks' to plug the hole.)

Brown's ad comes on the heels of several ads from Republican Meg Whitman, ads that hover around many of the same data points and yet draw a different conclusion.

Right off the bat, this ad accuses Brown of being a big tax kind of guy -- saying he "supported $7 billion in higher taxes" as governor. The fine print on the ad cites two news sources, stories which reveal that the bulk of that amount was a proposed $5 billion (over 10 years) sales tax increase earmarked for prison construction and local police. One of the sourced articles, from The Economist, also includes a nifty fact Whitman leaves out about the 1981 proposal: "[Brown] is asking for the first tax he has ever proposed."

The ad also talks about unemployment rising during the Brown era, and the issue of jobs -- a key issue in this 2010 race -- is getting spun by both candidates when assessing the Democrat's two terms as governor. Whitman's ad jabs Brown by saying that, on his watch, the state's unemployment rate nearly doubled -- to 11%. The data's accurate, but it's missing some context: the 11.1% unemployment rate in California when Brown left office coincided with a recession all across America and a national unemployment rate of 10.8% (that was, by the way, under every Republican's favorite president -- and Brown's predecessor -- Ronald Reagan).

On the other side, Brown's campaign ad touts the "1.9 million jobs" created on his watch. That number, while accurate, fails to recognize that -- according to state data -- the workforce also grew under just about every other governor in recent history. Ups and downs, yes, but there was also net job growth under the watch of George Deukmejian, Pete Wilson, and Gray Davis. Only under Arnold Schwarzenegger has the total the number of people employed seem to have fallen compared to when he took office. And given the larger economic forces at play, it's debatable whether any governor can take credit for major job creation.

Time Magazine

Finally, a note about the Brown record -- questioned in the Whitman ad -- on Proposition 13. The 1978 tax cutting initiative played a major policy and political role in his second term in office. Yes, as the Whitman ad says, Brown opposed Prop 13 before its passage. He later embraced it, and even today goes to great lengths to explain the evolution of his position.

But more important is what Prop 13's passage did to state government spending. In their rebuttal to Brown's debut ad, the Whitman camp sent reporters a statement that says "under Jerry's administration, the California budget grew by 119%."

Well, that's largely because Brown and legislators replaced the local dollars cut by Prop 13 with state dollars -- and they did so primarily in schools and health and human services. Consider this data from the state Department of Finance: in the last budget before Prop 13's passage, the state spent $3 billion from the general fund on K-12 education. The following three years, the state spent $5.6 billion, $7 billion, and $7.4 billion, respectively. The records show similar growth in spending on health and human services programs, which were largely funded in the pre-Prop 13 era with local dollars.

As with most campaign ads, it's not so much the numbers and facts that are off as it is the selection of those numbers and facts, and the assertion that all of the data points to an indisputable conclusion.

Perhaps the only criticism of Brown's eight years which is, in fact, not in dispute: that he wasn't around as much as he should have been, given his presidential aspirations in 1976 and 1980.

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About John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new multimedia California Politics & Government Desk.  He has covered California politics for most of the past two decades -- serving previously as Sacramento bureau chief for KQED News and, most recently, as political editor for KXTV News10 (ABC) in Sacramento. He moderated the only gubernatorial debate of 2014, and was named one of the nation's top statehouse reporters by The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.
  • Roxanne Scott

    Your comment that “The ad also touts “$4 billion in tax cuts” enacted by Brown. Well, here’s where the role of a governor gets interesting, as many of the tax cuts the campaign mentions were in the form of laws signed by Brown but written by legislators. That’s doesn’t dismiss his role, but should remind everyone that governors can’t take all of the credit.” references that great disservice reporters and media talking heads have done to the public. You all talk and act like the President, and in this case, Governors, make the law. Congress and state legislatures make the law. The American people should know this and the media should know this but I just have to assume the media is uneducated too.

  • John Myers

    The reason I said that is because governors indeed have a limited role. But it’s inaccurate to portray them as having absolutely no role. Remember that a governor can veto a bill he or she doesn’t like, and no governor since Brown has had the Legislature override a veto — in other words, that’s very, very rare.

    It’s also worth noting that some pieces of legislation are, in fact, written by a governor and governor’s staff, and “carried” in the Assembly or Senate by a legislator… thus masking the fact that the idea began with that governor.

  • 2010 Costume

    Interesting context, thank you. But I find it ironic indeed if the Meg Whitman ad claims Jerry Brown was absent too much given his presidential ambitions. His presidential ambitions are clearly over, whereas hers are quite evident and widely known. In the event she prevails, one wonders how much she’ll be around while she tries to position herself for the job she really wants…