SACRAMENTO -- California isn't broken, Gov. Jerry Brown declared Monday, insisting that he's taken significant steps to reduce decades of dysfunction from the Capitol -- even when they didn't square with his mission to convince voters to raise taxes in November.
In an exclusive interview with this newspaper, the governor pointed to pension reform, workers' compensation reform and other legislative victories as proof of his recent successes to rid California of its image of a failed state.
"I haven't solved all the problems of California and no governor has since Peter Burnett started in 1849," Brown said in a telephone interview from his Oakland office. "You never get it all. But this is more than anybody would have thought about three or four years ago.
"From an objective point of view, we've made a helluva lot of progress."
Brown's chest-thumping and cheerleading comes as he heads into the critical period of his campaign for new taxes. While the governor hopes the job he has done translates to support at the ballot box, he says his agenda to move ahead on controversial projects like high-speed rail and a water tunnel are ample evidence that his work hasn't been dictated by selling Proposition 30.
"There is the possibility that at my age I'm not trying to pull a trick on somebody," Brown said. "At some point, we gotta take people at their word. I ran for governor to see if I couldn't fix the state, make things better. Everything is not just dominated by 'Oh, we have this proposition.'"
Few political leaders have the ability to sell that dual focus to voters -- that the state is broke, but not broken, experts say. Max Neiman, resident senior scholar at UC Berkeley's Institute of Governmental Studies, said Brown has cemented his reputation as someone who thinks big and delivers.
"He's a perfect match for the tenor of the times and the state's temper," Neiman said. "Within the cracks and crevices where he sees opportunities to get things done, he's seized them."
So while Brown is in the midst of poring through the more than 500 bills that remain on his desk, he is also busy making fundraising calls for his tax initiative, which would raise income taxes on couples who make more than $500,000 and hike the sales tax by a quarter-cent and prevent about $6 billion in cuts to schools. The campaign has raised nearly $10 million, compared with the $24 million that wealthy attorney Molly Munger has poured of her own money into Proposition 38, a rival tax measure.
To critics who say Brown fell short in resolving the long-term unfunded pension liabilities in the state and local governments, the governor said he'd done more than any of his predecessors.
"This is the biggest pension reform ever," he said. "Which critic can tell me they can do more than I've been doing?"
While state and local governments are facing massive pension debts, estimated at about $250 billion, the fixes Brown signed are expected to save between $52 and $72 billion.
Brown said that pension reform is a "ship that moves slowly in the waters, and we've turned in a much better direction. We've set a tone that's pushing pension reform along," he said, particularly with tools that cap pensions and allow local governments to require public employees to pay as much as 50 percent of cost of their pensions.
On workers' compensation reforms, approved on the final day of the session with the support of labor and business leaders alike, Brown trumpeted his ability to bring Republicans and Democrats together for lopsided votes in the Legislature. Brown has been credited with closing the deal with personal appeals to legislators in both parties.
The deal averted a large premium increase to employers while increasing payouts to injured workers but eliminated coverage for conditions that most commonly lead to lawsuits.
"This was a real triumph -- the first time we've got Republicans and Democrats in huge numbers," Brown said. "That's work. Did that help Proposition 30? I wasn't even thinking of Proposition 30. I just knew that workers' comp needed this reform and this is the most major reform probably ever."
Brown also touted other changes he's delivered, such as handing over responsibility for nonviolent offenders to local jails and producing two consecutive on-time budgets while cutting more than $15 billion.
"Is it exciting? Does it help Proposition 30? Not really," Brown said. "But it does make government more efficient."
One problem in persuading voters that the Capitol is functioning, he said is that the "meme of government as failed state is very, very powerful. It has been that way for decades, so we don't overcome it entirely but anybody who looks at what I'm doing, it meets any test of reasonable expectation."