Should Gov. Jerry Brown be blamed for the lack of California medical supplies? Hindsight is an unsympathetic observer. It often measures past events by current circumstances. Brown’s decision of not continuing the funding of the state’s built-up medical supply reserves at the time he was facing a huge budget deficit is understandable—but an opportunity to replenish later was ignored.

California once had medical reserves established by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to deal with a massive medical emergency like the current COVID-19 crisis that slipped away through lack of funding by Brown, as revealed by the joint venture report from the Center of Investigative Reporting and the Los Angeles Times. First, a word of understanding for Brown’s initial decision—then a reproach for what came later.

Following the wide coverage of the Katrina disaster in New Orleans and the outbreak of avian flu, during his first term Schwarzenegger called for an investment in emergency medical supplies that included three 200-bed mobile hospitals, a stockpile of N95 masks, ventilators and other medical supplies. 

But that was before the Great Recession of 2008. 

When Brown succeeded Schwarzenegger as governor he faced a $26 billion budget hole. As part of the effort to close the gap, Brown’s budget reduced spending for K-12, the University and Cal State systems, Medi-Cal and a myriad of services that totaled over $11 billion according the Legislative Analyst report on the 2011-12 budget. 

Brown also had other reductions in place ready to trigger if revenue continued to fall. Removing funding from the medical backup that was sitting in warehouses and sending the supplies to local governments was a way to deal with the immediate difficulties. Local governments, presumably now responsible for the gifted equipment, let the equipment expire over time. 

The financial crisis set Brown on the road to insure he or future governors would not face as drastic a budget situation again. As ugly as the next California budget will be because of the coronavirus economic collapse, it would be that much worse if not for Brown’s focus on preparing for a budget shortfall by fighting to build a rainy-day fund. 

Measured against the situation at the time, Brown’s decision was logical. 

Yet, the state’s fortunes turned. The state budget was balanced by 2013 and took off from there. California rose from the tenth largest economy in the world in 2012 to the fifth largest at the end of Brown’s term. 

With a dramatic increase in state revenue, Brown didn’t take the opportunity to replenish the backup medical supplies. Even worse, instead of building back the medical supplies ready for an emergency, the governor used his influence to find funding for the still useless high-speed rail project. That money would be better spent—and would still be better spent today– re-establishing the medical backup plan that Schwarzenegger envisioned.