Jerry Brown's State of the State: Whom does he need to impress most?

In his State of the State address Monday, Jerry Brown needs to persuade undecided Californians and at least five Republican legislators that his tax-and-cut budget plan is the right one.

Rich Pedroncelli/AP
Gov. Jerry Brown responds to a question while talking with reporters during a news conference held in his Capitol office in Sacramento, Calif., Wednesday.

California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) has to be a man of several hats – serious, visionary, and funny – all in the nine to 20 minutes he will likely give to his State of the State address Monday afternoon.

With giddy delight, he set a tone at his Jan. 3 inaugural that he intends to be a no-nonsense, practical governor who won’t squander political good will early. He has followed that with a three-pronged proposal to deal with the state’s $25.4 billion deficit: legislative spending cuts, followed by a special election to extend certain tax rates, and last the final budget for the legislature to pass.

His challenge Monday is to sell the complicated plan to the public and key legislators. It will likely leave little room for laundry lists of other priorities. For Governor Brown at this moment, the budget requires his near-total attention.

“He has to do more than lay out reasons why the state is broke, he has to make it clear why it’s worth it to go through all this pain,” says Barbara O’Connor, director of the Institute for Study of Politics and Media at California State University, Sacramento.

Needing Republican help

Brown's $84.6 billion budget is dependent on the cuts (totaling $12.5 billion), as well as the five-year tax extension (totaling $12 billion). But to get the tax-extension proposal before voters, he has to convince two-thirds of state legislators to place it on the ballot. Democrats are two votes shy of a two-thirds majority in the Assembly and three votes shy in the Senate, meaning Brown will need some Republican support.

The speech is expected to be brief and without much detail, say experts. In his first two terms as governor, from 1975 to 1983, several state of the state speeches ran about nine minutes. The San Francisco Chronicle reports that Brown is writing the speech himself, without involving staff and administration who, for other governors, typically write the speech. His will be handwritten, likely at the last minute, and will not be available to reporters beforehand, the paper says.

“State of the state addresses often include extremely long laundry lists of everything a governor wants to achieve in a year, but Jerry Brown’s challenge is to forgo that and focus on his two tough choices: cutting the budget and extending tax increases,” says Thad Kousser, a political scientist at University of California, San Diego. “He knows his governorship will be made or broken over this budget."

"What will be interesting to watch is how he articulates what needs to be done," he adds. "Does he say things like, ‘If you extend these increases, we’ll have to cut the school year six weeks short,’ or just say, ‘We really need to preserve our schools?’ ”

Businesses will be watching

Besides voters and legislators, Brown has a third constituency to consider: businesses.

“With finances so far out of balance, big new spending programs or tax incentives are out of the question,” says Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College. “Brown’s challenge is to convey the gravity of the situation without frightening away businesses that might invest in the state.”

Forty-one percent of Californians approve of the job Brown is doing, while 19 percent disapprove, according to a poll released last week by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC). Some 32 percent haven’t made up their minds. This speech is an opportunity to win over those Californians.

“Part of the reason he has been getting so much support is that he is not playing games and showing his strength as a no-nonsense leader,” says Ms. O’Connor. “Now he has to tell everyone why all their sacrifices will be worth it in returning the state’s luster. It’s a tough assignment.”

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