Gov. Jerry Brown (D) delivered what was perhaps the most upbeat State of the State address in recent memory Thursday, lauding the progress California has made to recover from 2008's economic collapse.
“The message this year is clear: California has once again confounded our critics,” Brown said to begin the address. “We have wrought in just two years a solid and enduring budget. And, by God, we will persevere and keep it that way for years to come.
“Against those who take pleasure, singing of our demise, California did the impossible.”
Brown “saluted” members of the legislature, state unions, and even average Californians – who passed Proposition 30 in November 2012, leading to increased taxes – for their work to balance the state's budget. Budget uncertainties remain though, Brown said, pointing to unknown true costs of implementing the Affordable Care Act, often referred to as Obamacare, and the dangers of overspending on indulgences rather than saving any newfound surpluses.
“The people have given us seven years of extra taxes,” Brown said. “Let us follow the wisdom of Joseph, pay down our debts and store up reserves against the leaner times that will surely come.”
The address was rife with biblical references, history lessons, and grandiose proclamations about California's “destiny.” At times, it was as much pep rally as a discussion of policy.
As the speech wound down, Brown began to focus more on specific issues, education chief among them. Brown urged legislators to give more power to local school districts, rather than implementing new state mandates.
“I would prefer to trust our teachers who are in the classroom each day, doing the real work – lighting fires in young minds,” Brown said.
Brown's 2013 budget proposal calls for more local control over funding, as well. A new Local Control Funding Formula would offer districts supplemental funds to spend as they so choose, to address their specific challenges.
Brown also urged changes in higher education to reduce the time to graduation, but said “tuition increases are not the answer.”
“I will not let the students become the default financiers of our colleges and universities,” Brown said.
Jobs are returning to California quickly, Brown said, but the state must do more to encourage job creation. Brown listed changes to the enterprise zone program and jobs hiring credit, as well as a California Environmental Quality Act overhaul, among his top priorities.
San Joaquin Delta water will receive attention in the coming year, with Brown supporting a $14 billion project to build two tunnels 30 miles long and 40 feet wide. Those tunnels would improve the ecology of the Delta, improving almost 100 square miles of habitat, Brown said.
And before the speech concluded, Brown voiced his support for California's high-speed rail system one more time. Construction will start on the first phase this year, laying rail from Madera to Bakersfield, if all goes according to plan.
“It has taken great perseverance to get us this far,” Brown said. “I signed the original high speed rail Authority in 1982—over 30 years ago. In 2013, we will finally break ground and start construction.”
The speech had its high points and its low points, according to locally-elected legislators.
“Today, Gov. Brown spoke about many of the topics I too believe are important to address this year: jobs, education reform, water and living within our means,” said State Sen. Anthony Cannella (R-Ceres) .
Cannella agreed with Brown's plans to reform CEQA and grant more local control to school districts. Cannella also endorsed Brown's comments on showing fiscal restraint, even though the state has taken in additional revenues.
“Fiscal discipline and spending restraint are critically important if California is to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past,” Cannella said.
Cannella and Assemblymember Kristin Olsen (R-Modesto) had mixed opinions on Brown's plan to “fix” the Delta. Though both agreed some solution is needed, the viability of Brown's proposed tunnels was questioned.
“Governor Brown’s tunnels plan is not the answer to our water crisis,” Olsen said. “We need to pursue less expensive alternatives that supply southern communities with quality water without devastating Delta farmers and families.”
And Olsen cautioned against celebrating a balanced budget too soon, as local residents are still suffering from the fallout of the great recession.
“While our economy is showing some signs of recovery and there are stories to celebrate, California still has the third highest unemployment rate in the nation and Central Valley families suffer even more,” Olsen said. “I wish the Governor gave a more detailed plan for spurring job creation, but I’m pleased that he at least wants to reform CEQA and provide more certainty to businesses.”
Brown's full speech can be reviewed online at http://gov.ca.gov/home.php.