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Brown Lays Out the Battles He’ll Fight

John Wildermuth
Journalist and Political Commentator

You can say this about Gov. Jerry Brown: He doesn’t mind a fight.

His State of the State address Wednesday morning was missing some of the in-your-face rhetoric that former Gov. Schwarzenegger was known for. And there was plenty of old-guy-looking-back reminisces from the state’s oldest-ever governor.

But in a low-key, even-toned address, Brown made it clear he plans to fight at least three battles this year.

First, he’s taking on the Republican refusal to even consider any additional taxes to close the state’s budget gap.

The tax initiative “is fair,” the governor said. “It is temporary. It is half of what people were paying in 2010. And it will protect our schools and guarantee – in the Constitution – funding for the public safety programs we transferred to local government.”

Second, he’s not going to back away from a confrontation with legislative Democrats and their allies over his proposed cuts to a host of social service programs.

“It is said the road to hell is paved with good intentions and digging ourselves into a deep financial hole – to do good – is a bad idea,” Brown warned.

Finally, and most surprisingly, the governor appears ready to go to the mat over the state’s high-speed rail plan, a high-priced, long-term effort that is drawing increasing complaints from both Democrats and Republicans.

Brown saved some of his most soaring rhetoric for the rail plan, reminding legislators that he approved legislation to study high-speed rail 30 years ago in his first go-round as governor and, “without any hesitation,” urging them to approve the plan.

“Those who believe California is in decline will naturally shrink back from such a strenuous undertaking,” the governor said. “I understand that feeling but I don’t share it, because I know this state and the spirit of the people who choose to live here.”

He noted that while there are plenty of critics of the high-speed rail plan, there were naysayers for the California Water Project, the interstate highway system, BART and, voyaging back deep into the past, even the Panama and Suez canals.

“The critics were wrong then and they’re wrong now,” Brown said.

The governor also talked about the need for a solution to the state’s water wars, which he admitted was “an enormous project” that will require “time, political will and countless permits from state and federal agencies.” And Brown didn’t even crack a smile when he told the assembled legislators that “I invite your collaboration and constructive engagement,” two things that have been notably lacking in Sacramento and not only on water issues.

As for pensions, the governor noted that he has put out his 12-point plan. “Examine it. Improve it. But please take up the issue and do something real.” That’s a message aimed directly at his fellow Democrats and the public employee unions who are among their strongest – and most generous — backers.

As Brown said during the 2010 campaign for governor, there’s something liberating about being a politician who’s not looking to climb the next rung on the ladder. As governor, that means he doesn’t have to worry about the consequences of putting together a spending plan that has something for everyone to hate.

He talked glowingly about a state on the mend and provided an upbeat – albeit somewhat rose-colored – look at the state’s economy, where the number of jobs is growing, the tech and green sectors are improving and the budget problems have eased dramatically since last year.

Sounding like Schwarzenegger, Brown said that “Contrary to those declinists, who sing of Texas and bemoan our woes, California is still the land of dreams … California has problems, but rumors of its demise are greatly exaggerated.”

But while it’s easy to think great thoughts and provide a soaring vision of California’s future, Brown learned last year that it’s not nearly so simple to actually bring people together to get things done.

While Brown can generally ignore Republican legislators in moving his many of his plans through the Assembly and state Senate, his statewide tax plan aimed at the November ballot won’t pass without votes from Republicans and independents. And when it comes to issues that split the Legislature’s Democrats, like high-speed rail, Brown is going to be looking for some GOP support.

And while Democrats generally applauded Brown’s plan for a temporary tax hike, they were generally silent on his call for program cuts, which the governor needs if he’s going to sell his tax vote as a piece of shared sacrifice for everyone in the state.

While Brown stated his goals for the year in a matter-of-fact tone, expect that he’ll be raising his voice plenty of times in the coming months as he tries again to transform those hopes and ideas into reality.

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