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Jerry Brown's a lot of things, but he's no tax-and-spender

CAPITOL JOURNAL

A recent ad by the California Chamber of Commerce painting the former governor as promoting higher state spending and taxes missed the truth by a mile and damages the chamber's credibility.

April 12, 2010|George Skelton | Capitol Journal
  • The California Chamber of Commerce pulled its ad that described the former governor as promoting higher state spending and taxes after complaints from board members. In fact, Brown cut taxes.
The California Chamber of Commerce pulled its ad that described the former…

From Sacramento — There's ample baggage to hang around Jerry Brown's neck from his stint as governor way back when. But it does not include his being a tax-and-spender.

Brown never raised general taxes. In fact, he reduced the income tax.

If anything, Brown didn't spend enough.

Ask anyone who was paying attention during that 1975-1983 period and you'll probably hear a complaint that the young governor allowed the state's infrastructure to begin decaying.

He especially didn't invest enough in highways and universities. That was a mistake, he now concedes. But back then, he was preaching an "era of limits."

Jerry Brown was continually snubbing his nose at the political establishment, embodied by his father, Pat Brown, an admired, old-school former governor.

That resulted in cute stunts such as serving Britain's bemused Prince Charles a soda-pop luncheon of cold cuts and tossed greens -- treating a prince like a pauper.

It also led to Brown's disastrous stroke in appointing Rose Elizabeth Bird, a trusted aide with no judicial experience, as state Supreme Court chief justice. She later was ousted by voters.

But a tax-and-spender? Hardly, even if such a charge does play well in Republican polling and focus groups.

That's one of the factors that made the California Chamber of Commerce's TV ad attacking Brown last week so hare-brained.

"The ad sounded like it was written by someone who wasn't even born when Jerry was governor," says Tony Quinn, a longtime Republican political analyst.

It was produced by an out-of-state ad maker, apparently with minimum knowledge or interest in California political history. But truth rarely ranks a priority in political advertising anywhere.

The other factor that made the spot seem dopey was that it was so out of character and unbecoming of its sponsor, the normally esteemed state chamber. This is a respected organization with a prestigious board that lobbies for business interests, but until last week had stayed above mud-wallowing.

That was the shocker. It was as if some nice church-going family man had gotten drunk and was barking obscenities while chasing a bar wench in front of stunned friends.

Chamber President Allan Zaremberg, of course, didn't see it that way. He contended the ad merely represented an effort to "educate" voters about the vital issues of job creation, taxes and spending.

Right. That's why the spot -- titled "Enough is Enough" -- was all about slamming Brown, the cinch Democratic nominee for governor.

"To any reasonably minded person, this is nothing more than a typical political attack ad," complained four chamber board members in a letter to Zaremberg. "It undermines the chamber's credibility to justify it as anything other than that. . . . This is not the kind of 'education' approach with which . . . the chamber should be associated."

After Brown and his wife worked the phones for hours asking board members "What gives?" and some of them griped to Zaremberg, he pulled the ad. It had run for only a few days around the state and was replaced with a neutral issues blurb.

But undoubtedly similar versions of the hit piece are being crafted by Republican front-runner Meg Whitman.

If you missed the spot, which featured a '70s-era Brown mug shot, this was the narration by a female announcer:

"California's lost 1 million jobs. We're $200 billion in debt. And Jerry Brown has a 35-year record of higher spending and taxes. Gov. Brown opposed Prop. 13. Spending increased 163%. He turned a budget surplus into a massive debt."

The narrator also says that when Brown was Oakland's mayor, city taxes rose, spending increased 60% and "jobs vanished." Admittedly, I'm foggy on Oakland. But I do know that all the tax hikes were approved by at least two-thirds of the city's voters.

I also know that Atty. Gen. Brown can't be blamed for California's job losses or debt.

And as often is recounted, Gov. Brown did oppose Prop. 13, the 1978 ballot initiative that drastically cut local property taxes. He supported a more practical alternative. So did the chamber, which now hypocritically criticizes Brown for a similar position. So did future Republican Govs. George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson and most of the political establishment.

But Brown so enthusiastically implemented Prop. 13 that its co-sponsor, Republican Howard Jarvis, cut a reelection campaign commercial for the governor and voted for him.

Under Brown, spending did increase 161% (a hair short of the chamber's claimed 163%). One reason was that the state began shoving money out to local governments to make up for their property tax losses.

But if the business lobby and the GOP really insist on attacking tax-and-spenders, to be credible they should denounce Gov. Ronald Reagan.

The conservative icon -- who governed as a moderate -- still holds the modern California record for a tax increase relative to the size of the general fund. It was 30%. Gov. Wilson's tax hike was 16% and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's last year was 14%.

Reagan also was the biggest spender of the last half-century. Under him, spending leaped 177%.

By comparison, Brown was a right-wing kook -- not a liberal flake.

george.skelton @latimes.com

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