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Creating California 

Pat Brown knew how to build a great state; Arnold Schwarzenegger knows how to dismantle it

Thursday, Feb 3 2005
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One of the odder infatuations of California politics is that of Tom McClintock for Pat Brown. McClintock, the longtime Republican legislator, is an extreme taxophobe even by current GOP standards. Brown, California’s one great liberal Democratic governor, was a tax-and-spend Democrat par excellence. But at various points throughout McClintock’s career, including his 2003 gubernatorial candidacy during the Gray Davis recall, he has waxed rhapsodic about Brown. Old Pat built the freeways and they ran on time; he built the aqueducts that brought water to the San Joaquin Valley and L.A.; he came up with California’s master plan for education and funded the UC, Cal State and community-college systems so well that there was a place there for every high school graduate — and he did it all within the confines of the state budget, with hardly any recourse to bonded indebtedness. At one state Republican gathering a couple of months before the recall, McClintock referred the audience to Brown’s 1965 budget — a thing of beauty in his eyes.

I had the questionable taste to ask McClintock, since Brown was so great in 1965, whether he would have supported Brown in the 1966 election, when he was unseated in his bid for a third term by Ronald Reagan. (McClintock was a teenager at the time.) No, McClintock allowed, Brown may have been good but Reagan was better.

McClintock’s infatuation is of interest not so much because it is surpassingly weird, but because it so clear an expression of California’s faux creation epic. In this saga, California grows to greatness due to the vibrancy of its private sector and its shrewd public investments. The “t-word” — taxes — is nowhere to be found.

And yet, as Ethan Rarick’s excellent and important new biography, California Rising: The Life and Times of Pat Brown, makes clear, Brown built the California of the Golden Age by deliberately raising taxes, progressive taxes most especially, when he came to office. When Brown was elected governor in November of 1958, the state was all but exploding, with 500,000 new residents moving in every year. But the state had not had a tax increase in 20 years, and was facing a deficit when Brown took office. Republicans had controlled state government for decades, but the election of 1958 had swept Democrats to power not just in the governor’s office but in both houses of the legislature. And Brown came to power with a big agenda.

In Brown’s inaugural address, he noted that 75,000 people had moved to the state just in the nine weeks since he’d been elected. California could no longer be on “dead center, unresponsive and inert,” he declared. Brown proposed, writes Rarick, to “ban racial discrimination in hiring, limit consumer credit charges, expand publicly funded medical care for the poor, establish a minimum wage, improve campaign finance reporting . . . offer treatment to drug addicts convicted of crimes, implement new training programs for prison inmates, improve the public schools, research the dangers of smog . . . ”

And to a considerable extent, Brown delivered. He prevailed upon the legislature to establish a Fair Employment Practices Commission in his first year as governor and a fair housing act in his fifth year — at considerable cost to his popularity. The first anti-smog legislation was enacted on his watch. He could not overcome the opposition of agribusiness to establishing a state minimum wage; that had to await his son Jerry’s tenure as governor. However, he built three UC campuses and four CSUs, and the state spent more on education and transportation, relative to the other states, than it ever had before or would again.

There was only one way to accomplish these feats, and that was by raising taxes in his first year as governor. Brown persuaded the legislature to increase the top rate in the state income tax from 6 percent to 7 percent; personal and dependent exemptions were expanded for the poor and diminished for the rich; the capital gains tax got a small increase; the bank and corporation income tax got a big increase, and for the first time a tax was placed on cigarettes. Brown also tried to enact a severance tax on oil and gas, but on this, the oil barons prevailed. Brown’s was the most significant tax increase in the history of the state, and it paid for the improvements that solidified California’s reputation as the golden land of the postwar American dream.

As Rarick notes, Brown “saw that in a state growing as rapidly as California, cutting programs would be foolish in the long run, so he insisted in his budget proposal that every penny of the new money was needed. In his diary he was more candid. ‘I have nothing but contempt for those who say that no new taxes are necessary,’ he wrote.”

Rarick has been working on this biography for many years, and its release was certainly not timed to contrast Brown’s approach to government, and his achievements, with those of California’s current governor — a figure for whom, if we are to take Brown at his word, Brown would have nothing but contempt. In many ways, Brown might have a lot to learn from Arnold Schwarzenegger. Brown was something of a bumbler as a politician — losing control of the state’s delegation at the 1960 Democratic National Convention, alienating capital-punishment supporters and opponents through his mishandling of Caryl Chessman’s execution. He had precious little charisma, though he was a figure of almost limitless affability. Unlike Schwarzenegger, he was not adept at planning his moves very far ahead.

Yet Pat Brown built this state and personified California’s spirit at its very best — its commitment to both growth and justice. Schwarzenegger is his polar opposite, much as George W. Bush is Franklin Roosevelt’s. In Arnold’s budget, the rich keep their tax breaks while schools go unbuilt and health benefits are cut back. What Arnold doesn’t understand is that the California he dreamed of and moved halfway around the world to settle in was built by Pat Brown.

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