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Straight Talk From California’s Jerry Brown

Spencer Michels and Jerry Brown

Spencer Michels interviews California Gov. Jerry Brown.

Jerry Brown is riding high. The 74-year-old Democratic governor of California has achieved a kind of political miracle: He has balanced the state’s budget for the first time in 15 years.

Brown — who just finished a course of radiation for prostate cancer — told me in an interview for the PBS NewsHour that he’s doing well, even though he “can’t run as fast, you got to watch your diet a little more.”

And, he added philosophically, “I really feel more equipped physically, intellectually, and spiritually to do this work than I ever have in any other time in my life.” He is enjoying his success, first at the polls by getting an initiative passed in November that raised taxes, and then with his joyous declaration that he had solved the budget mess.

But California is not out of the woods and Brown knows it. He has made massive cuts to state programs that want to rebuild as soon as money is available. His budget is based on assumptions of state revenue that some critics say are too optimistic. The money he has “borrowed” over the past two years, from state programs like redevelopment and schools, has not yet been repaid. And if the economy doesn’t continue to improve, Brown admits the budget could go out of whack once more.

The budget isn’t the only challenge Brown faces in his second shot at being governor. He served two terms in the 1970s, when he was 30 years younger. Back then he tried to get a handle on the burgeoning state prison system, and declared that rehabilitation of inmates was not a primary goal of that department. Now he is blasting the federal government for holding on to oversight of California prisons for too long. A federal court had ordered that oversight due to inadequate health conditions and too many inmates inside the prisons.

“They hit us over the head before I got there with a two by four,” he told me this week. “We’ve spent a lot of money; California now spends over $15,000 per inmate on healthcare… So we’re throwing massive amounts of money, we’re hiring psychiatrists, doctors, we’re raising their salaries, we’re building magnificent state of the art hospitals…. This is money. And it just really drives me crazy when people say, ‘Oh, you haven’t done anything.’ Well, should we cut the colleges more and pump it into the prisons?… We’ve already reduced the prison [population] by 43,000. They want to add another 9,000. I don’t think that’s smart, and I don’t think the law requires it, and moreover, management of a prison is quintessentially an executive function.”

Brown is also wrestling with water problems. He has proposed an expensive 30-mile long tunnel under the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, near San Francisco Bay, to carry water from the wet north of the state to the dry south. He’s also proposed a multi-billion dollar high-speed rail system to link San Diego and Los Angeles to San Francisco and Sacramento — eventually.

But in an era of limits (as Brown likes to call it) and huge budget cuts to health and welfare programs, how does he justify gigantic expenditures for those projects? “If you take a big project, whether it be water or high speed rail, that project is going to be around for 50, 75 years…. So in reality it’s a fraction of the wealth that is generated. And in fact, they both contribute to and preserve the wealth that we’re all going to want to rely on in the years to come.”

Some writers have suggested that Brown’s backing of such major projects is somehow psychologically linked to his father, Edmund G. “Pat” Brown, who was governor in the 1960s, and who is regarded as the father of the massive California water project and of the University of California. I asked him if legacy was part of his psyche. His answer: pure Jerry Brown.

“The legacy thing has been invented in the last probably 15 to 20 years. I never heard of legacy when I was governor the first time. No one ever, not one reporter in eight years said, ‘What about this legacy thing?’… I do things ’cause I think it’s the right thing to do. I think it’s important, it’s something that I know to be part of California’s future…. I think the role of California governors in history books is minimal. It just doesn’t show up there. So I think you’ve got to work on what’s needed today…. Now people always want to psychologize. Why do you do this? Why do you want to be governor? Why didn’t you become a fireman? It’s a silly story. Okay, I’m here, ’cause I like it. I know this job pretty well, and I want to do the best I can in the years that I have.”

And when asked about his health, he said: “I’m doing well. Ask me in 20 years.”

Spencer Michels’ interview with Gov. Jerry Brown airs Tuesday on the NewsHour.

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