AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
We're going to focus now on the longest-serving governor in California history. Not long ago, the state was in crisis. Years of mismanagement coupled with the great recession sent California into a death spiral of red ink. At the time, it wasn't unusual to hear the state mentioned in the same breath as Greece or Spain. Then, in 2010, voters elected Democrat Jerry Brown governor again. He'd already served two terms back in the late '70s and early '80s. And Brown made deep cuts to education and social services. And with broad voter support, he used a ballot initiative to raise taxes.
Today, the state's finances are healthier than they've been in years and many in Washington, where the national budget debate is still raging, are looking to California and to Governor Brown for lessons learned. I'm joined now by Governor Jerry Brown. Welcome to the program.
GOVERNOR JERRY BROWN: Well, thank you.
CORNISH: Now, as we described there, you helped balance California's books after years of disruptive budget battles and a deep deficit. What are the two factors you think helped turn things around?
BROWN: Well, the fact that the crisis went on for almost a decade was one important precondition. And then, secondly, in responding to the crisis, all the cuts to education, to health care, to child care, to university, this was real. It was widespread and the citizens noticed it. So when I presented an opportunity to add new revenue in Proposition 30, it was embraced by about 55 percent of the people. So it went through kind of the dark night of the soul and they came out when they were given the opportunity.
CORNISH: Now, one of the criticisms that people level about this turnaround is that it's left people behind, that the poverty rate in California is higher than the national average, currently 23 percent. And while the unemployment rate is down, for instance, the percentage of people who are looking for work, who want full-time jobs, is still quite high - 19 percent - one of the worst rates in the country.
BROWN: Well, that's true because California is a magnet. People come here from all over the world - close by from Mexico and Central America and further out from Asia and the Middle East. So California beckons and people come. And then, of course, a lot of people who arrive are not that skilled and they take lower paying jobs, and that reflects itself in the economic distribution. So, yeah, it's there. But it's really the flip side of California's incredible attractiveness and prosperity.
CORNISH: Given all this - the high poverty rate, some argue a diminished middle class and one of the highest tax rates for the wealthy in the country - is this recovery sustainable?
BROWN: Well, California has been going a long time, since at least the Gold Rush in 1848. It's had reverses. There have been recessions, depressions, panics. But over time, it's continued to move. The economy is about two trillion, the gross domestic product. So, yes, we have challenges. We have issues...
CORNISH: But I ask because that tax increase, for example, is a temporary fix. And do you think that you've managed to approach the long-term issues there when it comes to the state's finances?
BROWN: Yes. I'll tell you why. Because we - the previous governors incurred a lot of debt and we're paying that debt down. And as we pay the debt down, the debt service is reduced. And we hope with economic growth and keeping our budget in line and restrained that by the tax - time the tax goes away, California will have a sustainable path forward.
CORNISH: Now, as we've discussed, things in California in terms of the politics have calmed down remarkably. And how much of that is due to the fact that, frankly, Democrats run the state now, hold most of the major offices, the legislature? It's not really a two-party system anymore.
BROWN: Well, there's plenty of two-party system in different parts of California. But overall, the Democrats have a majority. Of course, the people who are independent, who decline to affiliate with either party, is over one of every five voters. So that's the equalizer.
But it just reflects the fact that a lot of people in California don't buy the Republican argument that you've got to spend so much time and effort protecting those who are at the top, because over the last 30 years, they've done better than 95 percent of the people. So given that, I'd say the party numbers of the Democrats over the Republicans reflect the choice of people in the state reacting to the changes in the economy.
CORNISH: Well, what does it say that to see progress that you essentially end up with single-party rule, right? In the end, the progress in California politically is not necessarily coming from bipartisan compromise and a deal at the national level will.
BROWN: Well, you're really quarrelling with the people. They've decided to affiliate with the Democratic Party and increasing numbers disaffiliate with the Republicans. So that might cause the Republicans to change their ways a bit. But Republicans play a role, and they always will play a role.
I believe that I'm offering independent balance, so I keep the two parties both being able to contribute to governance of California. As far as the national, there is a diversity much greater than California. So how Alabama and Georgia get along with Vermont and Massachusetts and California, that's the great problem here. And a great power has to find some unity.
As Abraham Lincoln said, a house divided cannot stand. And we certainly have a house divided. How we resolve that, short of a more direct conflict, is not clear right now. Only if Democrats and half the Republicans can find a way to come together, find a modus vivendi, our - can our country be saved. But I wouldn't in any way minimize the crisis that is engulfing the nation's capital. For now, they just can't govern. And that is very, very dangerous because of the role we play in the world.
CORNISH: Governor Brown, you've held many different public offices - from mayor to state attorney general. How have you changed as a politician?
BROWN: Well, the most obvious change is just the passage of time. And we live in a time-bound world where we have a beginning, a middle and an end. So I'm closer to the latter than the former, and that gets your attention. Also, I have an experience of seeing the politics, the culture and the economy over at least four decades as an adult. So that gives me a sense of familiarity, clarity about what is needed. I cut to the chase, I get to the heart of things and also realize that change is slow.
Society is not a contraption that you can just kind of jigger around like you might an Erector Set. It's an organism that has a very powerful DNA that permits change but only very slowly. So you have to understand the basic structure of California, of the communities, and then work with that to bring out the best and compensate for those that are less attractive aspects.
CORNISH: California Governor Jerry Brown, thank you so much for speaking with us.
BROWN: Thank you. I enjoyed it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.