Heed Your Libertarian Impulse, Gov. Brown

SACRAMENTO – It’s time for Gov. Jerry Brown to release his inner libertarian.

I know. This sounds nuts, or born of wishful thinking.

The governor has spent his first months in office advocating more government spending and protecting the ravenous public-sector unions that helped elect him to office. But deep down – maybe, not so deep down – Brown understands the limits of government and the importance of freedom, entrepreneurship and a competitive environment.

The big news this past week was Brown’s call for a constitutional amendment that would assure funding for the realignment plan that shifts responsibility for low-level offenders from the bureaucratic state corrections department to county governments.

The plan itself has libertarian elements in that local control is more accountable to the public than state control. Unfortunately, speaking Wednesday to a group of government officials and law enforcement leaders in Sacramento, Brown reassured them that there will be plenty of money to implement the plan. Brown told officials concerned about the new costs that will be imposed upon them: “Don’t worry about the money. We’ll get it to you one way or the other.” That’s anything but reassuring to taxpayers.

Someone ought to engrave those words on the outside of the Capitol building, given that it epitomizes the way officials work. They spend like crazy, and then find money. This, of course, is a decidedly nonlibertarian approach that will lead to higher taxes, fees and fines on Californians.

But Brown said something else, too: “A lot of what people think the governor does is consider new bills … and, unfortunately, that’s a lot of what I have to do, even though we have more laws than we need, many more laws than we need, we keep getting more. … Every year, on average about 1,000 new laws are enacted, and most of the laws are solutions to the same problems. … [I]t means that no matter how many solutions are provided every year, we have the same number of problems.”

Maybe he “gets it” at some level.

Brown loves to discuss ideas. Indeed, his 1990s-era radio show is filled with occasionally radical opinions one doesn’t usually hear from people who become governor. But Brown’s recent libertarian-leaning words at the conference weren’t an aberration.

They strike a theme he has been making as he has been approving and vetoing the hundreds of bill sent him by the Legislature.

In vetoing a bill by Sen. Lou Correa, D-Santa Ana, that would have unnecessarily restricted medical marijuana clinics, Brown wrote: “Decisions of this kind are best made in cities and counties, not the state Capitol.”

In vetoing a bill that would have required kids to wear helmets while skiing, he wrote, “While I appreciate the value of wearing a ski helmet, I am concerned about the continuing and seemingly inexorable transfer of authority from parents to the state. Not every human problem deserves a law.”

That’s good stuff. Perhaps, Brown is merely living up to his Canoe Theory of Politics, which he once detailed this way to reporters: “You paddle a little on the left and a little on the right, and you paddle a straight course.”

Brown paddles left on budget issues, for sure, but he has paddled right on a number of things. For instance, he vetoed the noxious bill that would have eliminated secret ballots when farm workers vote on joining a union, although he did later sign a compromise package that makes unionization easier. He has vowed to legislators that they better expect a lot of vetoes, and has struck down absurd assaults on the initiative process, such as a requirement that paid signature-gatherers wear a sign advertising that they are paid to collect signatures. Under his watch, most of the so-called job-killer bills, so named by the California Chamber of Commerce, have faded away.

He upset social conservatives (as opposed to libertarians) after he signed a gay school-curriculum bill, which is now subject to a referendum campaign, and from tax-fighter groups after he allowed Solano County to increase marriage-license fees without a vote – a bad precedent, but a tiny matter in the scheme of things. He remains a cheerleader for green issues and the bogus, subsidized green-energy industry.

But Brown gets things right more often than his party’s moderates, who manage to be wrong on just about everything because they refuse to look at issues in a principled and innovative manner. Look, for instance, at how Brown has taken on the state’s authoritarian redevelopment agencies, something that united lefties and libertarians. Therein lies the murky hope – that, in his quirky way, Brown might just listen to his own words about governmental limits and do some unexpected and useful things.

Don’t get me wrong. The governor has steadfastly resisted reforming public-employee pensions and other governmental reforms that are crucial to the fiscal health of the state. He is in the pocket of the public-sector unions. He believes in increasing taxes early and often, even if he will do so only after citizens vote in favor of them. Aside from a few highly publicized but insignificant spending cuts (cars for legislators, cell phones for public employees, etc.), Brown has not pushed much serious cost-cutting.

On Wednesday, the governor wasn’t specific about his funding plan, but the constitutional amendment he is pushing will almost certainly be designed to make it easier for local taxpayers to pass bonds and special taxes by lowering the supermajority vote threshold for tax hikes. That’s very bad.

So I hold no illusions. But the key to saving California is to pare back an out-of-control public sector, and to once again unleash the freedoms and entrepreneurial spirit that built this state. There are signs he understands that fact. If Brown acts on those libertarian impulses, he could pull the state back from the brink and earn a place in history.

Call me a dreamer, but there aren’t many options left.

[This article was originally published in the Orange County Register.]