California's Nation-Leading Minimum Wage Hike Is the Latest for Birthday Boy Jerry Brown

Governor Jerry Brown avoided his characteristic quipsmanship as he signed California's nation-leading minimum wage hike into law on Monday morning in downtown LA. "Morally and socially and politically," he noted soberly, "the minimum wage make every sense because it binds the community together and makes sure that parents can take care of their kids in a much more satisfactory way."

"This is about economic justice," Brown declared. "It's about people. It's about creating a little, tiny amount of balance in a system that every day becomes more unbalanced." Brown, who turns 78 on April 7th, has a 60 percent job approval rating in the latest polling.

The latest in a string of major developments in Brown-style governance, California's increased of the minimum wage from the present $10 per hour to $15 per hour -- to be accomplished in stages between now and 2022 -- comes with what has become a trademark blend of future-oriented progressivism and pragmatism. There are now, as a result of negotiations with Brown legislative partners including state Senate President Kevin de Leon and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, "off-ramps" to be triggered in the event of an economic downturn (signified by drop in sales tax revenues) or brewing state budget crisis.

Governor Jerry Brown, joined by a host of labor, community, and legislative leaders, including legislative partners Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, signed the first statewide law in the nation raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour Monday morning in Los Angeles.

New York has also just enacted a minimum wage hike to $15 per hour, but its plan excludes part of the state.

Like his legendary father, the late Governor Pat Brown, who I first go to know when he gave me a schoolboy scholar-athlete award back in the mists of time, Jerry Brown (notwithstanding their at times times famously fraught relationship) also has always had a pronounced pragmatic style, notwithstanding his old "Moonbeam" moniker. He's just better now at blending it with his arguably visionary side, which was never so eccentric as his conventionally-mind detractors had it. Of course, the estimable Anne Gust Brown, first lady and special counsel to the governor, not to mention his de facto campaign manager in three elections, has had something to do with this.

As a result, Brown has garnered more than grudging admiration from some Republicans, which stood him in good stead when he needed to pass a new health care tax to fund California's very expansive version of Obamacare. Under Brown's leadership, the state's Medi-Cal system for lower-income folks has been expanded to provide health care to one-third of all Californians.

The Obama administration had disallowed a narrowcast tax only on plans for MediCal patients, so Brown had to get the legislature to expand the tax to all managed care operations. That was enacted at the end of February.

The details, as Brown himself acknowledged when he joked with reporters that he couldn't explain the bill's particulars, are abstruse. But he was able to convince enough Republican legislators to overcome their knee-jerk aversion to any form of taxation in order to expand health care for low-income Californians. And with a broader-based tax, no less. Which is decidedly not the sort of thing Republicans are doing elsewhere. Just imagine what would happen if the topic were broached in one of those hammer-and-tong Republican presidential debates.

Brown was similarly pragmatic, for progressive ends, in the state's landmark minimum wage hike. While Senator Bernie Sanders is talking up the move to a minimum $15 per hour, California under Brown is the first state in the nation to do it.

Brown acted in part to remove from the game board two separate union initiatives, proposed for the November ballot, to raise the minimum wage. These initiatives did not include off-ramp options. In so doing, he also put California at the forefront of what has become a national progressive parade, with Sanders having made "Fight for 15" one of the cornerstones of his campaign. (Which is why Hillary Clinton, facing a tough fight in her home state New York primary on April 19th, showed up at New York Governor Andrew Cuomo's Monday press conference touting the Empire State's partial move to a $15 per hour minimum wage.)

So there were a number of pragmatic elements at play in Brown's minimum wage move, though they not surprisingly didn't stop business and Republican criticism of the wage hike. Ideologically, those folks at heart want no minimum wage whatsoever.

In the more clearly visionary frame of things, Brown participated in last week's Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, speaking in a forum with former Secretary of Defense and Stanford professor William Perry sponsored by Global Zero. Brown sees nuclear weapons as the other great existential threat to human civilization on the planet, joining climate change in that alarming category.

Brown and California's leadership role on climate change -- along with the integrally associated areas of renewable energy and new transportation -- are known around the world. (Indeed, Brown just met with the prime minister of the Czech Republic to score another climate agreement.) But Brown's feelings about the need to end the potential scourge of nuclear weapons are not so well known, in part because his three presidential campaigns came in the 1970s, '80s, and '90s.

He hasn't been a player on national security matters (though he briefly served on the Air Force Academy board), but as a well-traveled intellectual he has always been well positioned to pursue California's aggressive international moves on climate, energy, and trade.

Should he choose to pursue a term in the U.S. Senate, as I've written that he should, following his record fourth term as governor, his focus on the existential threats facing our civilization will be very pertinent, especially so given the levels of denial in Washington.

Meanwhile, with the state's $27 billion budget deficit of January 2011 far behind in the rear view mirror and a slew of substance-oriented reforms in such areas as energy, education, corrections, water conservation, and fiscal matters in the bank, Brown has several still outstanding big projects to attend to even as he continues to move to dramatically cut California's petroleum use.

The California high-speed rail project, last one standing of the once promising new Obama era in transportation, recently surmounted a key legal challenge, but the path remains challenging. Brown also has his hands full with his big water conveyance project, needed for a growing state, and a proposed initiative to relax mandatory sentencing guidelines for lower-level offenders.

It's quite an expensive agenda for someone of any age, much less an age at which most have been long retired. Not that Brown has ever been the retiring type. Since his mom and dad, who were not exactly fitness zealots -- Governor Pat's idea of working out was splashing around in his pool -- lived into their 90s, I think there is a lot more Jerry Brown in store.

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