What a ride! Jerry Brown, California’s longest-serving governor, officially ended his tenure on Monday. With a paradoxical combination of boldness and pragmatism, progressive vision and fiscal conservatism, Brown presided over a complete economic turnaround for the state. Brown’s transportation, climate, and housing policies were just a portion of that legacy, but the impacts will be felt for a generation if not longer.
We can’t encapsulate all he did on these three issues in a single blog post, but we’ll attempt to recap his administration’s biggest accomplishments, the role of TransForm and our allies in those events, and what to look out for as the Newsom Administration takes over.
Of course, a governor (like a president) cannot craft and enact new laws alone. Legislators and other state leaders play a huge role, and advocates like us work hard to shape the outcomes. This post would get even longer if we acknowledged every actor in eight years of drama, so we’ll just remind readers here that state government is not a one-man show! At the same time, reflecting on Brown’s time as governor does underscore how important a governor’s leadership can be.
Climate and Cap-and-Trade
In this era of divided and divisive government it’s amazing, and maybe also hopeful, to remember that just twelve years ago a Republican governor and a Democratic legislature worked together to pass AB 32, California’s landmark climate action law. That law enabled the nation’s first carbon cap-and-trade program, creating a market mechanism that would set the price for polluting greenhouse gases.
Years later, after many controversial details of an imperfect system have been worked out, one enormous issue has and will continue to come up: how to spend cap-and-trade revenues.
Early on, TransForm and our allies recognized that the revenues had to not only reduce climate pollution, but also do good for California and Californians — especially those most impacted by climate change and emissions. In partnership with Housing California, we created Sustainable Communities for All (SC4A) in 2012, a coalition of environmental, transportation, housing, and social justice organizations working to ensure that cap-and-trade revenues support climate justice and equitable growth.
That was definitely not an outcome we could take for granted. Governor Brown had proposed putting $500 million per year of cap-and-trade revenue in the state’s General Fund, and many jurisdictions and even transit agencies supported spending the revenue on new roads and highways!
When opposition to investing cap and trade dollars in affordable housing was at its strongest, TransForm and our allies published a report that turned the tide by proving that affordable housing near transit was an effective climate action strategy. SC4A was instrumental to the creation of the Affordable Housing and Sustainable Communities Program, or AHSC, which quickly became the state’s single largest affordable housing investment.
Today, California Climate Investments (also called the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund or GGRF) includes funds for electric vehicles, energy efficiency, urban forestry and greening, but largest of all, the GGRF plan allocates 60 percent of revenues from California’s cap and trade program on a continuous basis to high speed rail, transit capital and operations programs, and AHSC, which now receives 20 percent of all cap-and-trade funds each year.
Other priorities of TransForm and our allies in SC4A met with varying degrees of success. Multiple attempts by TransForm and Move LA to invest funds in student transit passes were rebuffed by the Brown Administration. Urban greening and natural resource investments also often faced significant pushback.
In the last couple of years, Governor Brown ensured that California’s climate leadership will continue for more than a decade after he leaves office. In 2016 he championed SB 32, which mandates reducing greenhouse gas emissions reductions to 40% below 1990 levels by 2030. That’s the strongest statewide emissions reduction target in the country, and there is a lot of work still needed to align regional transportation and land use policy to meet it.
Then in 2017, Governor Brown and the Legislature reaffirmed the cap-and-trade program for another decade. As long as those revenues are coming in, there will be pressures to spend them on a wide variety of programs — some better than others. SC4A will remain vigilant about protecting continuous appropriations for AHSC and transit capital and operations programs.
California, like Governor Brown, is full of contradictions. We are a climate action leader, but car culture is still deeply ingrained. Even a progressive administration with a climate focus feels tremendous pressure from the auto industry, construction trade unions, the driving public, and others to spend transportation dollars on roads and car-centric infrastructure.
Governor Brown led some major transportation initiatives that moved us in the right direction, but they do not amount to the sea-change in transportation priorities that climate change, as well as public health and safety, demand. Hopefully though, Brown’s accomplishments will set the stage to make those larger paradigm shifts possible.
SB1: a better way to fund transportation
The greatest transportation accomplishment of Brown’s administration, both politically and in policy, is the passage of SB 1, which ushered in a new era of transportation funding. The previous funding mechanism was untenable—the state’s largest source of transportation funding, the gas tax, hadn’t been increased since 1994 and was losing value.
SB 1 brings in over $5 billion per year from gas and diesel taxes, as well as a vehicle registration fee. The defeat of Prop 6 confirmed that most Californians are willing to pay for transportation improvements, including public transit and active transportation, and ensured this accomplishment will remain part of Brown’s legacy.
Governor Brown demanded robust, durable solutions to fund our crumbling transportation infrastructure and inadequate funding mechanisms. Yet the administration’s first 2017 proposal did not include nearly enough transit investment, and no real social equity measures.The Governor harbored no ill will toward transit — he was working within what he believed to be the possible.
TransForm and our allies pushed back hard, supporting a funding concept that, going in, few thought possible: a vehicle registration fee for transit investments. When the Governor saw the new possibilities, he went for it. Funding for transit, biking, and walking went from five percent of the spending package to 20 percent. We also have to thank our transit champions in the Legislature for this, especially Senators Jim Beall of San Jose and Ben Allen of Santa Monica, who held the line on transit spending.
In a great example of Governor Brown’s keen sense of political strategy, he forced the issue in 2017, not in 2018 when his leverage would be gone. He knew he’d have one year to hold budgets and bills over legislators, and he put them into the tough position of taking a 2/3rd’s vote on transportation funding at the same time as extending the state’s cap and trade program (also a 2/3rd’s vote). And he won.
Sadly, besides the significant funding for public transit, we did not have the leverage for additional transportation equity measures, such as setting aside a larger portion of funding for disadvantaged communities.. Also, in a last-minute deal, the Governor gave in to diesel truck interests and exempted them from some air quality standards. In solidarity with our environmental justice allies, we opposed SB 1 in the end. However, we fought hard to preserve its gains by defeating Prop 6 in November 2018. Learn more about SB 1, the best bill we’ve ever opposed.
Creating the Active Transportation Program
In the realm of biking and walking, Governor Brown’s top appointees often did not see eye-to-eye with TransForm and our allies. The biggest change of his administration was more about streamlining bureaucracy than actually supporting active transportation.
When Brown’s State Transportation Agency (CalSTA) sought to dismantle and re-form the state’s various sources for biking and walking funding into a new “Active Transportation Program,” or ATP, the advocacy community had real concerns. It was a “new” program with no new money proposed for it, suggesting vital projects would be pitted against each other to compete for limited dollars.
The active transportation community, led by the incredible Deb Hubsmith (who sadly passed away in 2015), stuck to its principles and helped develop a final proposal that, though far from perfect, provided many assurances to our community. Still, there was no significant increase in funding for the ATP until SB 1 passed in 2017, roughly doubling its annual budget with an infusion of $100 million per year.
Even so, less than two percent of state funds support safe biking and walking, though those modes make up about 20 percent of trips statewide. If the next administration is going to align our transportation priorities with our climate goals — and advance basic fairness and transportation equity — we need much more investment in these areas.
Fighting for High-Speed Rail
Perhaps Brown’s highest profile transportation project — it may be too soon to call it an accomplishment — is the California High-Speed Rail project. We applaud this vision. Building high-speed rail (HSR) is considerably cheaper than the alternatives (widening highways and expanding airports), without the same disastrous environmental and health consequences. HSR can reinforce cities as the hubs of our economies, relieve congested roads, and help California meet greenhouse gas reduction goals. If done right, it can serve as the backbone of a connected, thriving California.
Unfortunately, delays and cost overruns have muddled what should be a bright spot in Governor Brown’s legacy.
TransForm first engaged in the high-speed rail debate in 2003, helping lead a chorus of environmental and equity groups that successfully demanded that the proposed route should have stations in downtowns, rather than in greenfields along I-5 with airport-style development.
After the project was pulled off of the ballot in 2004 and 2006, TransForm re-engaged, pressing for HSR to run on clean energy, to support important land conservation efforts, to include a land use planning program, and to identify all of its funding from sources that don’t compete with local transit. With all of these features adopted, TransForm supported the successful 2008 ballot measure to provide nearly $10 billion for HSR and regional transit connections.
Still, getting the project started faced a host of complexities. After a revised business plan in 2012 addressed our biggest concerns, we supported construction, but with a list of recommendations.
Project construction is now underway in the Central Valley. Governor Newsom supports HSR, but it is still to be seen how much political and financial capital he is willing to put into it. One thing is for certain; if HSR ever does connect San Francisco and Los Angeles with the Central Valley, and possibly reach San Diego and Sacramento as well, it will be Brown’s largest and most lasting legacy.
Housing and Redevelopment
When Governor Brown took office in 2011, he inherited the ninth largest economy on Earth with a $27 billion deficit, still reeling from the Great Recession. Right out of the gate, in one of his boldest and most controversial moves, Governor Brown dissolved local redevelopment agencies and used the nearly $2 billion in savings to help fill the budget deficit.
In many cities, redevelopment dollars often funded affordable housing projects, including transit-oriented developments. Many experts, such as Assemblyman David Chiu, think that eliminating redevelopment agencies ultimately exacerbated California’s housing crisis.
At the time, Brown said that California could no longer afford redevelopment — it was time to tighten our belts and make tough choices, and he thought local property taxes should be prioritized for schools and core city and county services. In any event, it left a vacuum for affordable housing funding. While Cap-and-Trade funds would fill some of that gap, the housing crisis exploded during Brown’s governorship and has become a huge problem for the next administration to address.
Now that Brown is out of office, expect to see multiple legislative proposals to bring back redevelopment agencies in some form.
Navigating contradictions with a balanced approach
California is a land of massive, colliding contradictions, and Governor Brown embodied these dichotomies to a degree unlike many individuals. We are a car culture, but we want to be a climate leader. We hold strong principles for a more just and equal society, but hold fast to infrastructure and planning codes that, oftentimes, create or exacerbate racial and economic inequities. We have the largest economy in the U.S., by far, but have regions with the highest income inequality and lowest pay. We profess a love for the environment, but maintain the worst air quality in the nation.
Governor Brown is a bold leader with big visions, but he is also cynical about solving some big problems, such as the housing crisis. He seems to have taken to heart the saying that “politics is the art of the possible,” but sometimes he sees (and achieves) political possibilities that others would miss.
Clearly understanding the limits of what can be can be a blessing and a curse. His pragmatism and frugality often frustrated advocacy organizations, whose job it is to push for more than is possible in order to get as much as possible. But there’s no denying his balanced leadership has put California in a very strong position.