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Edmund Brown Jr.


(Douglas Adesko)

(Douglas Adesko)

Not that long ago, people were questioning whether California could be governed. The state faced multibillion-dollar shortfalls every year, leading to questions about whether California would go broke before Greece. In terms of dysfunction, Sacramento appeared to have beaten even Washington.

Then Jerry Brown returned as governor. When he took office in 2011, the state was $26 billion short. This year, lawmakers were fighting about what to do with a surplus. Much of that had to do with the state’s rising economy, but Brown also helped put the state back on a sustainable course.

In 2012, he convinced voters to raise sales and income taxes. Since then, he has managed to curb the impulse legislators have to spend money as fast or faster than it’s coming in, using his veto power freely and instead diverting the money to the state’s rainy day fund. “His ability to follow through on his promise to voters that he was going to stabilize the financial situation, which every year had been a problem, has made all the difference in the world,” says Mark Baldassare, president of the Public Policy Institute of California.

Brown was a young governor when he served two terms back in the 1970s and 1980s. During his long hiatus, Brown served tours as mayor of Oakland and state attorney general, among other pursuits (including making his third presidential bid in 1992).

At the same time Brown was elected as governor in 2010, voters approved a measure allowing state budgets to be passed by a simple majority, saving him all the headaches that accrued when a two-thirds vote was required. Brown, now 77, had no problem winning a fourth term as governor last year.

With the financial house in order, Brown has helped California lead the way on progressive legislation. The state has expanded benefits as well as rights for undocumented immigrants. This year, Brown increased state spending on higher education in exchange for a two-year tuition freeze at the University of California.

In October, Brown signed a climate change law that, among other things, will require utilities to get half their power from renewable sources by 2030. The New York Times called it “the most significant act of energy and climate policy leadership in any state” since California’s last landmark law, back in 2006.

Brown has taken tough steps to address the state’s historic drought; his package of penalties convinced residents to reduce their water use this year by more than 25 percent. Last year, he convinced voters to approve a $7.5 billion water infrastructure bond. His intention to build a pair of 30-mile-long tunnels to move water south, however, has run into serious opposition. Similarly, his plans for high-speed rail have also been slow in moving off the drawing board.

Brown is not invincible, but he’s clearly the dominant political force in the nation’s largest state. “When he came into office, it was fashionable to say that California was broken and could not be repaired,” says Ethan Rarick, associate director of the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. “Nobody says that now.”

-- By Alan Greenblatt

Read about the rest of the 2015 Public Officials of the Year and watch his acceptance speech below:

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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