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Democrat Jerry Brown, the once (1975-1983) and possibly future governor of California, sat unopposed and smiling on the sidelines these last few months as candidates for the Republican nomination for governor chewed each other up in the primary election ending tomorrow – the most expensive non-presidential campaign in U.S. history.

For the November election, Brown has the union money all lined up, the liberal elites unified, the deceptive conservative campaign rhetoric refined by focus groups. Once the youngest governor in California’s history, if elected, Brown would be the oldest. In a déjà vu campaign, Brown lusts to outdo his father’s two terms as governor.

But for many Californians with long memories, the question is what Jerry Brown will do to cope with the devastating effects his earlier terms as governor had on California. Here’s a little background:

When I was an undergraduate at the University of California in the late ’60s, Ronald Reagan was governor of California.

Then, California was the envy of the world – the Golden State. Higher education was essentially free – and the best in the world. We had the newest and best freeways, abundant, cheap electricity and water so abundant and cheap that many communities didn’t bother to meter it. New affordable housing communities sprang up every week as millions moved here for the fun, sun and the opportunity California promised.

State and local government taxes were low, less than half of today’s taxes even after adjusting for inflation and population growth. A business friendly environment produced unemployment rates always lower than the national average.

Today, California is a third-world basket case. The K-12 system is collapsing under rising dropout rates and ever poorer performance by the students who remain. The university system is top heavy with expensive bureaucrats, riddled with politically correct “classes” and excludes the poor with ever-rising student “fees.”

The state has stopped building new freeways, halted new power plants and created a man-made “dust bowl” in the fertile Central Valley by blocking water for humans in favor of water for fish. Business is evil incarnate, requiring ever more regulation. Taxes are the highest in the nation, unemployment higher. Millions of productive Californians are leaving for the opportunities in neighboring states. And for those who remain here, the livin’ ain’t easy.

How did this happen? It started with the 1974 election of new-age, radical leftist Jerry Brown and liberal majorities in the state Legislature.

Brown preached a vision of an “era of limits” translating widespread 1970s public concern about air and water pollution and the countryside being paved over by suburbia into big government central planning. New environmental standards helped the environment but delayed and made more expensive everything from hospitals to housing.

Brown canceled the freeway program with some routes abandoned that were already under construction. He canceled dam projects and new aqueducts. He established the California Energy Commission to block new power plants. He expanded the role of the Air Resources Board to the point that bakeries were required to install expensive scrubbers on their exhaust fans to protect the public from the “polluting” smell of freshly baked bread.

In a psychedelic fusion of European socialism and Jeffersonian agrarianism, Brown earned the title “Moonbeam” for espousing the notion that “if we don’t build it, we won’t need it” and the now (after Obama) familiar notion that every area of life could be improved with more government rules.

Radical environmentalism continues as a major theme in California politics. Under Arnold Schwarzenegger, California has already passed “cap and trade” and required the utility companies to get 20 percent of their electricity from “alternative sources” by 2020. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (a municipal utility) has estimated that utility rates in L.A. will have to increase by 28 percent to meet this goal.

That is, if the “alternate” plants are even allowed to be built. A proposed solar electrical generating plant in the Mojave Desert (where the suns shines more than any other spot in North America) has been blocked by Sen. Diane Feinstein because of the adverse impact on the fragile desert environment!

Perhaps even more damaging to California was 1978 legislation signed by then Gov. Brown allowing collective bargaining for public employees. No single act has changed California for the worse more than this one.

Before 1978, there was a relatively small state government. Employees were protected by civil service. Pay was lower than comparable jobs in the private sector but job security and good benefits – plus the old notion of “public service” – drew many talented people to work in government.

Today, the primary goal of powerful public employee unions is to get the Legislature they bought and paid for to enact a new law making it illegal for any city or county to declare bankruptcy without guaranteeing union contract terms. Taxpayers and “public service” be damned.

Today’s public-employee unions will spend millions in campaign money to elect compliant politicians to protect jobs that now pay 20-30 percent more than comparable positions in a private company and retirement benefits that too often pay a public employee more in retirement than when working.

Everyone realizes that this is an “unsustainable” situation. Public services have deteriorated at every turn, but the money earned by the bloated bureaucracies that deliver those services has ballooned out of sight.

California’s Constitution requires a yearly balanced budget. The budget has not been balanced in many years. Each year, accounting tricks, plunder of “trust funds,” misuse of bond proceeds, illegal borrowing and all manner of chicanery is employed by the governor (of either party) and the Legislature to avoid the appearance of an unbalanced budget. This year the budget has an actual deficit of about $20 billion. The answer from the Democrat (read “union”) dominated Legislature? Raise taxes.

The coming campaign will pressure Jerry Brown to explain these legacies from his last tenure as governor. If he is elected (an outcome I predicted last year – a prediction I fervently hope is wrong), Brown must either change his legacy and chart a Chris Christie-like course of tax cuts, smaller government and confronting the public employee unions, or continue to preach the vision he started and the policies that will ultimately make California what Detroit has become.

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