Jerry Brown's defiant State of the State: California is still golden

With chronic budget woes engulfing California, many analysts had expected a 'gloom and doom' State of the State address from Gov. Jerry Brown. They got nothing of the sort.  

Rich Pedroncelli/AP
Gov. Jerry Brown walks through the Assembly to deliver his State of the State address before a joint session of the Legislature at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., Wednesday.

California Gov. Jerry Brown defied expectations Wednesday, delivering a State of the State speech that was unapologetically ambitious and even visionary despite a perpetual budget crisis that has, in recent years, dimmed the luster of the Golden State.

Governor Brown had been expected to use his address to further persuade voters to support a ballot initiative that asks voters to raise taxes on themselves – a last-ditch effort to solve California's chronic budget shortfalls. Instead, he attempted to rally Californians to a sense of common purpose and destiny.

The state which birthed Apple, Intel, Hewlett-Packard, Twitter, Facebook, and “countless other creative companies … is still the land of dreams,” he said. “Rumors of [California’s] demise are greatly exaggerated.”

It was the platform for an exhaustive list of goals that Brown laid out for California: stimulate jobs, build renewable energy, launch the nation’s only high-speed rail system, reach agreement on a plan to fix the Delta, improve schools, reform pensions, and “make sure prison realignment is working.”

“He came in a fighting mood that spoke to the critics – me included – who think there is only so much we can do," said Sherry Jeffe of the University of Southern California School of Policy, Planning, and Development, in a post-speech analysis on KQED radio. "This is the ambitious agenda he suggested when he ran for governor saying, 'I'm too old to mess around.' It was not all gloom and doom. A lot of us didn’t expect that."

During the 15-minute speech he thanked the Legislature for passing a tough budget in 2011 and cited positive economic statistics, such as: “In 2011, California personal income grew by almost $100 billion, and 230,000 jobs were created – a rate much higher than the nation.”

He also directly disputed the findings of an independent commission, which recommended last week that California not proceed with its first-in-the-nation, high-speed rail network because it can’t afford the $20 billion price tag. 

“Critics of the high-speed rail project abound, as they often do when something of this magnitude is proposed," he said. "The Panama Canal was for years thought to be impractical and [British politician] Benjamin Disraeli himself said of the Suez Canal: 'Totally impossible to be carried out.' "

"The critics were wrong then, and they’re wrong now,” he said.

Some analysts say the speech was a success. 

“He is realistic and honest and his agenda is out in the open," says Barbara O’Connor, director emeritus of the Institute for Study of Politics and Media at California State University, Sacramento. "He had enough in there to alienate most groups in California or provide an opportunity for their constructive involvement depending on their view."

"It was a speech of humility and recognition of all the key issues without claiming to be an expert on them," she adds.

But others were not so impressed.

“The governor tried to be both realistic and inspirational, but the two parts of the speech were in conflict,” says Jack Pitney, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, in an e-mail. “On the one hand, he talked about the necessity of spending cuts and tax increases. On the other hand, he renewed his support for a monstrously expensive high-speed rail system."

"He sounded like a father telling his kids that they had to go without breakfast so that he could buy a Cadillac,” Professor Pitney adds.

Michael Shires, a political scientist at Pepperdine University, agrees that such promises sound good in a speech, but not when voters really consider them.

“I think voters will feel differently about approving a $20 billion rail project when they realize they can fly to Oakland for $50 on Southwest,” says Professor Shires.

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