EDITORIAL: Jerry Brown, fiscal conservative?

The California governor tries to pull his state back from the precipice

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The man who used to be Governor Moonbeam is, of all people, pleading with fellow Democrats to restrain their insatiable spending. With a 2 to 1 advantage in the state Legislature, Democrats need not compromise with anyone, not even Gov. Jerry Brown, the 1970s liberal whose return to Sacramento has rendered him the voice of fiscal conservatism.

Mr. Brown entertains the radical notion that the state shouldn’t spend every dime it collects all at once. He’s urging spending restraint in a budget that must be approved by July 1. His most effective weapon is a November ballot proposition to establish a rainy-day fund which he says “allows the state to save for the future while paying down its debts and unfunded liabilities.” It would stash 1.5 percent of annual revenue, about $1.6 billion, for use in an “emergency.” It’s such common sense that voters should approve it easily.

It’s such a good idea, in fact, that then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger established a 3 percent rainy-day fund a decade ago, but the big-spending Democrats in the Assembly dipped into it at every opportunity, and soon it was gone.

“When money comes in, we spend it — and lots more,” Mr. Brown says. “That’s my No. 1 concern, to keep trust with the people’s money and not go back to the massive deficits of the past.”

He sounds persuaded, but a look at his 2015 budget shows spending going up by 8.5 percent, from $98 billion to $107 billion. Just about every government agency gets a boost, just not taxpayers who fund the ballooning budget. They are to pay 5.9 percent more, or $6 billion, in increased taxes.

This is the usual tax-and-spend liberalism, but in Sacramento, Mr. Brown is considered a tightwad. He must fight elements of his own party who can’t understand that sometimes less has to be less. “It’s not just proposing more ideas,” says Mr. Brown. “We have a lot of ideas. Now we have to make them work.”

Mr. Brown’s credentials as the liberal’s liberal give him the freedom to take positions that astonish his colleagues. He’s against legalizing pot. He has vetoed several gun-control bills that he says would have done nothing for public safety. He rejects a ban on fracking, saying it’s a matter that science should decide.

He isn’t driven by ideology. He’s not out to fundamentally transform his state. He’s not pushing common sense as hard as some Californians wish he would, but the budget would be far worse if Mr. Brown weren’t there and the Assembly Democrats ran the show. He’s no longer Gov. Moonbeam.

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