Gov. Jerry Brown’s LAST budget

Jerry Brown Budget 2017Governor Jerry Brown and his Finance Department are putting finishing touches on his final budget to be presented soon. This is a second time that Brown has wrapped up two terms as Governor of California offering a final budget. While much has changed in California government, politics and demography since that “first” last budget in 1982 was completed, a look back may offer some hints on where Brown will go with his second final budget.

Brown’s budget will reflect California’s current circumstances of a big economy with surpluses into the near future. The Legislative Analyst’s Office projected in November $19.3 billion in reserves for the 2018-19 budget if the legislature doesn’t create new budget commitments. Brown will do his best to keep those commitments in check.

But much can happen in the next few months to affect the budget Brown plans to present. Decisions out of Washington, D.C. on health care and the federal tax law changes, and also a possible repeal of California’s gas tax may upset any near-term picture on the budget.

One key difference from 36 years ago was that California was still living in the shadow of the tax revolt of 1978. Another key difference, while no longer running for governor, Brown would be on the 1982 ballot as a candidate for United States Senator. Recently, California legislators and voters have loosened their grip on the purse strings in recent legislative terms and elections. This time around Brown is not seeking another office and political considerations will not cloud budget decisions.

Ironically, just like the end of Brown’s current term, the year prior to his final budget the gas tax was increased in California. In 1981, the gas tax was raised two cents from 7-cents to 9-cents, a 28% increase. In 2017, the gas tax rose 12-cents from 29.7-cents to 41.7-cents, a 40% increase.

Brown was still famously speaking about the “era of limits” when he signed the $25.3 billion 1982 budget on June 30. The budget he offered in 1982 came at a time a recession hit. Brown’s 1982 budget was barely 1-percent larger than the previous budget.

Brown had an eye on his senate race and didn’t want to offer ammunition to political opponents. Reserves in certain accounts were tapped and gimmicks employed to make the budget appear balanced. It wasn’t. By the close of 1982 the budget was nearly $1 billion out of balance and the Senate Finance Committee held several hearings to come up with a fix.

The budget solution would not come under the Brown Administration. As tax historian David Doerr stated in his book, The California Tax Machine, “For the third time in four administrations, an outgoing governor used one-time revenues to balance the budget, leaving a dismal mess for the incoming governor (the exception was Ronald Reagan, who left Jerry Brown with a surplus.)”

The trend of inheriting a deficit was certainly felt by Brown when he took office for his third term in 2011. He does not want to leave a deficit again. His personal history from his first tour in the governor’s office and the experience of his recent gubernatorial journey will have him focused on the budget bottom line to maintain the surplus that the LAO projects.

Legislators should put their spending plans back in their pockets.

This article was originally published by Fox and Hounds Daily