Explaining Jerry Brown’s Newfound Energy (Policy)

Monday, March 23, 2015
Image credit: 
Sergey Nivens, Shutterstock

By tradition, a California governor’s second-term inaugural address is a good indicator of how the term-limited chief executive of America’s nation-state plans to ride off into the sunset. Pete Wilson’s second-term inaugural, delivered 20 years ago, included talk of shrinking government (lower taxes and less regulation) to spur economic growth. Gray Davis, kicking off his second (and decidedly abbreviated) term in 2003, struck a balanced tone between fiscal austerity and preserving the government safety net. Arnold Schwarzenegger, taking his second star-turn in 2007 (his first inaugural came a few weeks after his win in the October 2003 recall election), talked up a “post-partisan” agenda headlined by the previous year’s landmark climate-change legislation.

And Jerry Brown? Typical of a governor who’s as quizzical as he is a fixture on California’s political landscape (Brown, the state’s oldest and longest-serving chief executive, was first elected to a statewide office in 1970), there was a surprise plot twist. Brown’s biggest ticket item in January’s second-term kickoff – by that, the one passage that drew the most media attention – was a three-pronged approach to the state’s energy concerns. Brown’s proposals, all to be achieved over the next 15 years, are:

  1. Increase, from one-third to one-half, California electricity derived from renewable sources;
  2. Reduce, by one-half, current petroleum use by California cars and trucks;
  3. Double the efficiency of existing California buildings, making heating fuels cleaner.

There are four defining qualities as to what Brown proposed:

  1. As the Governor correctly observed in his address, the ideas are “ambitious.” Realistic? That’s another question;
  2. The pitch was long on vision, short on specifics (each was a quick one-liner in the speech; the Governor’s office didn’t offer any backup material to reporters);
  3. They’re part of the annual give-and-take between a hyper-progressive state legislative and a governor less grounded in liberal solutions;
  4. As the son of a previous California governor wedded to large-scale ideas, it’s keeping in the family tradition of how best to exercise the reins of government.

About those last two points: If you parse Brown’s inaugural address, you’ll notice that it contains some troubling news for Democratic lawmakers – i.e., the Governor doesn’t want to go on a spending spree; he does want to revisit pension benefits for state workers (a $72 billion retiree health liability).

How then to coax Democrats into accepting such an unsavory notion? Simple: in part, by dangling an inviting carrot. And that would be an energy policy under the guise of addressing climate change. Keep in mind California Democrats love to talk the merits of AB 32 and cap-and-trade (though some liberals fear that state-mandated carbon limits will hurt the poor). And it’s a party whose President has suggested that global warming is a greater long-term threat than terrorism.

As for the idea of the son following in the father’s footsteps, this has less to do with amateur psychology than the reality that the sand is running out on the younger Brown’s time in office. Consider what reporters would write about Brown were he to leave office tomorrow. They’d note the remarkable comeback (28 years between the first and second tenures in the Governor’s office), his austere campaigns in 2010 and 2014, his success in managing the Legislature and selling the public on higher taxes (2012’s Proposition 30) and water policy (2014’s Proposition 1, a $7.12 billion water bond).

What’s missing from the second-time-around agenda is something as large-scale and long-term impacting as the father’s feats (building freeways and water projects, implementing a higher-education master plan). Cutting petroleum in half? Presumably, Pat Brown would smile in approval.

In this edition of Eureka, we’ll look at Brown’s three energy proposals – their feasibility, and what they mean both for California and for the Governor’s legacy. That includes:

  • Jeremy Carl, a Hoover research fellow and director of research for Hoover’s Shultz-Stephenson Task Force on Energy Policy, assessing the merits, land mines (and possible wiggle room) in cutting petroleum use.
  • Rob Lapsley, president of the California Business Roundtable, asking if an added reliance on renewable resources is a case of “too much of a good thing?”
  • Dian Grueneich, a former California PUC commissioner and Shultz-Stephenson senior research scholar, explaining how greater building efficiency can be reached if government uses its head – and taps into modern technology.
  • Finally, Hoover research fellow and California observer Carson Bruno will look at the political implications should these ideas see the light of day.

And before all of that, we have this podcast offering an insight into and a summation of Brown’s energy agenda.

We hope you enjoy the series – and that it gets you thinking about where California stands and where its leaders want to take us.