SAN FRANCISCO -- During a Thursday afternoon appearance at a conference filled with some of the heaviest hitters from worlds of business and politics, California Governor Jerry Brown forcefully advocated for his legislative agenda--one he promised would contain both tax increases and deep spending cuts.
Brown spoke at the 2012 Outlook Conference put on by influential local business group the Bay Area Council at San Jose's California Theater. The event also featured speeches by President Bill Clinton, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the CEOs of duPont, LinkedIn and PG&E.
Speaker after speaker continually returned to the theme of the hard work and political compromise needed in order to reverse the perceived trend of American decline, and Brown was no exception.
While noting he was essentially dealing with many of the same problems as when he first served as governor in the 1970s, such as high school graduation standards, pension reform and transportation, Brown lamented how the widening ideological divide between the two parties over the subsequent decades has made solving those problems significantly more challenging.
"Politics is always a somewhat nasty business, but it's gotten more difficult, more partisan, more polarized," he told an audience largely comprised of high-ranking business executives. "There's less independence now because the parties control collection [of funds] and therefore control most of the money. And we need independent thinkers now more than ever; we need to find the agreement to make tough decisions."
The Governor pitched a hard sell on his package of tax increases, which he noted had likely gathered the requisite 800,000 signatures to qualify for the November ballot. Brown noted if the proposition is voted down, it would automatically trigger cuts that he called "pretty darn tough."
"Suck it up and vote for the tax," he urged.
The governor also defended some of his cost-cutting proposals, such as a pension reform measure that would raise the age of retirement. "I know first-hand that people can work for longer than most people think they can," said the 74-year old Governor with a laugh.
Brown is currently the oldest sitting governor in the country; however, he was also the youngest governor to ever serve in the United States when he was first elected the office in 1974.
In addition to business executives, the audience contained a preponderance of elected and appointed officials from municipalities across the state. Brown's defense of his decision to end redevelopment in California seemed directed squarely in their direction.
"I liked redevelopment," said Brown apologetically. "I spent every cent of redevelopment money I got when I was mayor of Oakland. We spent $75 million on the Fox Theater alone. But it's not free money. It comes out of property taxes, which also fund schools and police. So, to make up the difference, cities get money from the state. Where does the state find that money? It invents it. That's something we had to stop."
In a speech following Brown's, Clinton largely echoed the sentiments of his one-time Democratic presidential primary opponent. "The problems of California are a microcosm of what the country faces and what people are facing all around the world," explained the former president.
Clinton talked about the necessity of raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans, something that Brown's tax measure hopes to accomplish on the state level. "I'm one of these guys who wants their taxes to go back to the levels where they were under me," he said.
When asked a question about what he recommends President Barack Obama do on his reelection campaign, Clinton praised the administration's contentious health care reform bill and urged Obama to run harder on its strengths. "If I were Obama, I'd talk about health care every chance I got," Clinton told the audience. "If you don't talk about something, people think you're ashamed of it."
Despite the array of issues discussed, both Brown and Clinton remained optimistic. "We may have a lot of problems, but we have have $2 trillion in GDP," said Brown hopefully. "Last year it went up $90 billion and this year its going to go up $70 billion."
"We can still screw it up, there are a lot of people poised to screw it up," he added. "But I didn't come here to screw it up."