COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | THOMAS ELIAS

Jerry Brown: promise keeper

The decisive moment of Jerry Brown’s 2010 campaign for governor came that September, when he looked straight into a camera for the simplest of political commercials.

“No new taxes without a vote of the people,” he declared.

Brown kept that promise. When Republicans in the Legislature stymied his attempt to put a tax-increase proposition before voters the easy way, without an initiative petition campaign, Brown raised well over $1 million and put his proposal on the ballot the hard way.

The decisive message of fall’s campaign over his measure, by then called Proposition 30, again had Brown looking straight into a camera, this time pledging that much of the money from his initiative would go to public schools.

He wasn’t precisely calling commercials for the rival Proposition 38 lies when he did that, but one of their frequent claims has now been debunked. Some ads for 38 – which would have raised $10 billion a year, almost all earmarked for public schools – claimed none of the approximately $6 billion from Proposition 30 was assured for schools.

The budget Brown proposed early this month essentially gives about half the proceeds of Proposition 30 to elementary and high schools, providing them $2.7 billion more than last year’s austerity budget.

So Brown kept another campaign promise, a stark contrast with the way some of his predecessors treated campaign commitments. He also said he’d use some Proposition 30 money to restore other programs, observing that “other worthy things also have been cut.” Things like in-home care for frail seniors and the disabled, the CalWorks welfare to work program, child care and Medi-Cal all are now slated for budget increases or at least maintenance of last year’s levels. Again, a promise kept.

There’s a lesson here for almost everyone who deals with California government: Brown wasn’t kidding when he said, “This is not a game. And I didn’t come here — I’ll be 75 in April — just to screw around.”

That’s another way of saying, “Believe me when I say something. If I say I’ll do it, expect that I will.”

It means that when Brown says he plans to streamline the California Environmental Quality Act, known as CEQA, he means it. When he says he intends to wrest control of state prisons from federal judges who took over much of that system several years ago, he means to keep trying through as many court appeals as it takes.

The budget plan is full of other Brown promises kept, or at least already partially kept, besides his commitment to pass a lot of Proposition 30 proceeds along to schools. (Formally, it doesn’t happen quite so directly. The money goes to the state general fund, then gets dispensed. But the extra funding now proposed is mostly the result of Proposition 30.)

When he ran in 2010, Brown often observed that his eight years as mayor of Oakland taught him that local officials, not the state, can best decide what’s important for their communities.

Now his budget stresses “flex” spending, giving local school boards and county education offices more options than previous fiscal plans. Local districts would decide whether to continue Gifted and Talented Education programs, school busing services and 37 other “categorical” items no longer mandated by Sacramento. If the plan passes the Legislature, they could use the same money for other things, state Department of Finance officials stress.

Last fall, Brown said the state education funding formula that decides how much school districts get for every student enrolled should change to give students from low-income families, English learners, foster children and some others a better break.

His plan gives all schools at least as much as last year, but gives districts an extra 35 percent above the basic average of $6,700 per student (the amount Department of Finance officials listed in a conference call) for each “disadvantaged” youngster they enroll. If disadvantaged students total more than half any district’s enrollment, it will get yet another 35 percent for each pupil over the 50 percent mark. Some students, then, could be state-funded to the tune of more than $11,000 each, in addition to whatever money schools get from parcel taxes and other means.

Since a large percentage of high school and junior high dropouts fall into categories the state calls disadvantaged, there now will be a huge incentive for schools to keep them enrolled. If and when the new funding formula takes effect, watch districts set up all manner of dropout prevention programs, from added counseling to day care for children of teenage moms.

What’s remarkable in all this is that for the first time in many years, newspapers, blogs, radio and TV are beginning their stories about a governor with phrases like “true to his word.” When was the last time reporters could accurately use that phrase to describe a major politician?


Email Elias at tdelias@aol.com. His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft-cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, go to californiafocus.net.

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