Happy Birthday Governor Deukmejian!

Courken George Deukmejian, California 35th governor, was born in Menands, New York on June 6, 1928.

Running as Attorney General on a law-and-order platform in 1982, Deukmejian sharply expanded California’s prison building program – and the number of inmates behind bars. He also remade the state Surpeme Court in his iamge after voters ejected Chief Justice Rose Bird and two other justices in 1986.

For most of this eight years in office he and the state budget benefited from a strong state economy, fueled largely by defense and aerospace spending encouraged by the state ‘s former governor and then president, Ronald Reagan.

While his advisors and publicists styled him as the tight-fisted  “Iron Duke,” the GOP governor’s politics weren’t so rigid.

A story is told of a meeting towards the end of Deukmejian’s second term when state revenues are declining.

Deukmejian’s financial advisers told him that California’s caseload programs – welfare and Medi-Cal, the state’s health care program for the poor, are major contributions to higher-than-anticipated state expenses.

A family of three on welfare, the GOP governor was told, receive $694 each month – the second highest rate in the country behind Alaska.

“That’s all?” Deukmejian said.

Last year, Gov. Jerry Brown – Deukmejian’s predecessor – and lawmakers reduced maximum monthly state welfare payments to below 1987 levels.

Opposed to higher taxes, Deukmejian agreed to a budget deal in his first year as governor that included a tax increase – if the economy didn’t recover as much as hoped.

As he took office in January 1983, Deukmejian inherited a deficit of $1.5 billion, starting the job with a hole amounting to some 8 percent of his $21 billion general fund. Rating agencies lowered the state’s bond rating. Cash flow dried up.

Deukmejian elected to spread the problem over 18-months – in effect, balancing the budget over two years.

Deukmejian called for quick enactment of a fiscal recovery plan to increase the savings from any spending reductions – the same thing Brown asked lawmakers to do in 2012 but enacting spending cuts in March.

Like the current occupant, Deukmejian was a pragmatist. So was the Speaker of the California Assembly at the time, master dealmaker Willie Brown. 

A pragmatist like then Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, Deukmejian negotiated with Democrats to create some $640 million in current year budget reductions, mainly raking off money from special funds to shore up the general fund. Democrats wouldn’t back the idea without a tax increase. Republican lawmakers adamantly opposed a tax increase of any kind. Deukmejian didn’t want a tax increase either – particularly during what he hoped was the tail end of a recession.

Deukmejian, as a freshman state senator, carried then Gov. Ronald Reagan’s 1967 tax increase, which represented about one-third of the state’s general fund spending that year and is still, by percentage, the largest state tax increase in the nation.  

The compromise that ended the budget loggerheads between Deukmejian and the Democrats was the GOP governor’s endorsement of a temporary 1-cent increase in the sales tax.

If the economy didn’t rebound by October 1, 1983, the tax would go into effect. Revenue raised by it, at that time about $100 million a month, would be devoted exclusively to pay off the budget shortfall.

Once the debt was retired, the sales tax would not only return to its former level but would then be reduced by 1 cent for the same amount of time it took to erase the deficit.

Republicans said Deukmejian had sold out to Democrats but lawmakers finally approved the plan.

The economy recovered and, two years later, Deukmejian was sitting on a  $1.2 billion surplus.

Similarly, late in his second term when the state’s gas tax revenues ran out, Deukmejian embraced a ballot measure increasing gasoline taxes by 9 cents over five years, raising nearly $1 billion for what were billed as congestion-relief transportation projects.

Voters approved the measure as Proposition 111 in June 1990, after Deukmejian left office.

After receiving a law degree from St. John’s University and serving as a lawyer in the U.S. Army, Deukmejian came west settling in Belmont Shore in Long Beach where he still lives with his wife, Gloria.

Deukmejian was first elected to the Assembly in 1962 and the Senate in 1967. He opened his first inaugural speech in 1983 referring to his assembly election:

“Twenty years ago, I stood only a few yards from here to take the oath of office as a new member of the state Assembly. Through these two decades of California’s growth and evolution, one thing still has never changed, and that is our solemn and timeless responsibility to the people as public servants. Today, I stand before you to reaffirm this commitment as your governor.”

He went on to call for the bipartisan creation of a “Common Sense Society that uses its resources wisely to provide improved services to meet the basic needs of the people.”

In his second inaugural speech he pledged “a California that continues to be the state where America’s future begins.”


“Government begins with principles, not with the pocketbook. In California, I want government to stand for opportunity so that families can stand on their own.”

Son of Armenian immigrants, Deukmejian quipped at a 2009 memorial service for his long-time friend, former Assembly Speaker Bob Monagan that while he was known as one of the “Young Turks, a group of moderate Republican lawmakers, he “tried not to share that with the Armenian community.”

Friends and members of his administration organized an 80th birthday party in Sacramento in 2008 at which Deukmejian said he no longer had any frustrations since he had given up golf.

Deukmejian has been credited — perhaps apocryphally — with jesting that he couldn’t be elected governor today because during his eight years in office he made deals with Democrats all the time.





Filed under: California History


  1. The last truly great,ethical and compassionate Governor of California.
    Happy Birthday George!

    Comment by Bill Medigovich — 6.07.2012 @ 8:55 am

  2. Yes, Happy Birthday, Governor. Actually, Governor Deukmejian was still in office when voters approved Prop. 111 in June of 1990. He left office in January of 1991.

    Comment by Jeff Marston — 6.07.2012 @ 1:45 pm

  3. Happy Birthday, George! Thank you for being such an inspirational leader – in your personal life, during your private practice years, while in elected office, and now that you’re enjoying your retirement. Wishing you a great year ahead!

    Comment by Janey Roeder — 6.07.2012 @ 1:53 pm

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