What is the state of the state in California? Apparently it’s under siege. Gov. Jerry Brown’s annual address sounded more like a commander rallying his troops to resist an occupying force than an informative report from the state government’s chief executive.
“The recent election and inauguration of a new president have shown deep divisions across America,” said Brown. “While no one knows what the new leaders will actually do, there are signs that are disturbing. . . . Familiar signposts of our democracy – truth, civility, working together – have been obscured or swept aside.”
He returned to the theme moments later, saying that “while we now face different challenges, make no mistake: the future is uncertain and dangers abound. . . . this is a time which calls out for courage and for perseverance.” He promised that as leader of the resistance, he would provide both.
Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon set the tone before Brown spoke. He railed about “the threats from the new administration to our state’s values and its people,” then declared himself to be “glad to have Gov. Edmund G. Brown fighting with us and for all of us,” as if Brown were preparing to lead soldiers into battle.
Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León followed, declaring that the California proposition that “every person should enjoy the right to be exactly who they want to be and have an equal opportunity to succeed” is “now under threat.”
And rather than take a more judicious path, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom continued the theme.
“In the last few months,” he said, “we have announced repeatedly and emphatically that we are unafraid to fight.”
Is this the way that the political leaders of a dynamic and influential state should be conducting themselves? These are the people that Californians elected to run the government and make the laws. Is creating an illusion that the state has to defend itself from invaders the best they can do?
Brown called California the “great exception,” which is what it once was, attracting opportunity seekers and tireless workers from across the country and all over the world. But now it’s the “great exception” because even as the Blue State model has been rejected elsewhere, California won’t let go of the government architecture that has caused breakdowns in Connecticut, New Jersey and Vermont – formerly rich states that strangled themselves with layers of government – and in big cities all over the U.S. map.
Entrenched issues that truly plague Californians were not addressed by Brown. The state’s broken, unreliable, unfair and punitive income tax system wasn’t mentioned. Neither was the pension crisis that threatens the economy; the housing crunch which jeopardizes the future; the high cost of energy and the coming energy crisis; the state’s hostile business climate;; and Sacramento’s taste for free spending.
Neither did the Governor talk about poverty. As Assemblyman Dante Acosta wrote, “he missed the opportunity to call out his own party which has overseen the state for decades with a policy agenda that preaches compassion, but routinely ignores the problems that truly drive poverty.”
The only bright spot of Brown’s entire speech was his stated commitment to infrastructure improvement. California’s roads are a wreck, among the worst in the United States, and need attention. If the governor believes infrastructure is a priority, then he needs to take on that job. And that doesn’t mean leaning on Washington for more funds. It means using those fuel tax dollars Californians already send to Sacramento that should be applied to transportation projects.
It’s much easier to feign conflict with a nonexistent enemy than it is to do the hard political work of getting California back on track. That would require some grit and an abandonment of the old ideas that have brought the state to this creaky point. It takes less effort to oratorically stir up the masses and peel their eyes off the real problems, and refocus them on imagined hobgoblins.
California’s future is truly at risk, but not because the presidential candidate most voters in the state supported wasn’t elected.
Kerry Jackson is a fellow at the Center for California Reform at the Pacific Research Institute.