09/01/2011 02:48 pm ET | Updated Nov 01, 2011

Jerry Brown Finds Post-Budget Focus

The California state legislature is almost down to the last week of its yearly session, with little to show for it other than big budget cuts early in the year. Any real action on the economy? That would be no.

Meanwhile, Governor Jerry Brown is finding some focus after seeming, at least in a public sense, to drift for awhile after his great exertions on a grand budget deal, which were only partly successful. He, of course, appointed a distinguished new state Supreme Court Justice, Goodwin Liu, who was unanimously confirmed, and other officials, and has dealt with a lot of legislation. But his public moves and comments had been few and far between.

Just back from his Sierra Nevada hiking vacation last month, Governor Jerry Brown discussed his unsuccessful plan to get a handful of Republican legislators to allow a popular vote on tax extensions.

* Renewable Energy and Climate Change

Brown, once a globe-trotter and now something of a homebody, ventured to the not entirely ascetic confines of Las Vegas this week for his first trip out of state since beginning his third term as governor. Brown was lured from his lairs by the invitation of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to his annual National Clean Energy Summit.

Accompanied by a few state Capitol reporters, Brown, traveling as usual on Southwest Airlines, found time to meet privately with Reid and with Vice President Joe Biden. He also made it clear, once again, that he will chart an aggressive course for California on developing renewable energy sources and on dealing with the greenhouse effect, cause of global climate change.

"Climate change has become more obvious, and we see great opportunity in investing in wind, solar and energy efficiency, or 'negawatts,'" Brown said. "This is like the computer industry when it first started. It starts small and it keeps growing. We're not going to ever not need energy."

Brown pioneered the renewable energy path in the 1970s and 1980s. He joined his predecessor, former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has addressed this gathering in past years, in committing California to requiring that 33 percent of its electric power be generated by renewable energy sources.

The state looks like it's on track to meet that mandate.

"Last year," noted Brown, who was inaugurated in January, "we permitted 5,000 megawatts of wind and solar, and we have applications for 70,000 megawatts. The 33 percent goal has stimulated real investment. The entrepreneurs that made the computer revolution are the same people investing in renewable energy. Google is investing. These companies will grow."

Brown also told the San Jose Mercury News that he's going to talk up climate change, very much a linked issue. He spoke of the spate of extreme weather events and linked greenhouse deniers with those who once claimed that tobacco wasn't harmful.

"Climate change will create floods, droughts, forest fires of greater intensity and regularity, and with far greater devastation, he said. "Climate denial propaganda is very powerful, but California is standing against it. Part of my job is to advance the truth of science."

* High-speed Rail

During a series of meetings in Fresno last month, Brown revealed that, contrary to a fair amount of speculation, he is in no mood to dump the controversial high-speed rail program. Quite the contrary.

It shouldn't be a surprise.

Brown urged a high-speed rail system during his second term as governor, in the late '70s and early '80s. And he joined with Schwarzenegger and others in backing the current proposal, which is in the process of getting underway amidst a lot of uncertainty.

But, as with any big public works project, there's a lot of pork involved, and a lot of NIMBY-ism. And in this environment, a lot of trepidation about cost.

Brown broke ground on the biggest solar power project in the world earlier this summer in the Mojave Desert.

America, he said, is in a "period of massive retrenchment. I would like to be part of the group that gets America to think big again."

* Economic Climate

Brown's proposal in late August to change the corporate tax structure, in a complex tax swap that would, in a revenue neutral sort of way, redirect tax advantages from larger corporations that may not be investing much in California to other companies that are growing jobs here, is clever but probably a political non-starter, given heavy lobbying forces and the reluctance of latter-day Republicans to do anything with taxes besides cut them.

It sets up the politics of 2012 pretty nicely for Brown and Democrats, though. But if Brown wants to do something more immediate to help the economy, he can move on bonding authority won by predecessor Arnold Schwarzenegger's 2006 infrastructure initiatives and get some shovel-ready projects rolling.

He can also move on his promised pruning of regulation. To streamline, not eliminate.

Brown had earlier appointed a senior figure to help pull together the disparate strands of state policy relating to jobs and economic development.

And as expected, he was not an expected figure.

Former BankAmerica Corp. vice chairman Michael Rossi, 67, serves as "senior jobs advisor" in the Governor's Office. He will, in the words of Brown's statement, serve as "the point of contact between California's business and workforce leaders and the administration; he will streamline and invigorate the state's economic development infrastructure; and he will advise Governor Brown on regulatory, legislative and executive actions needed to drive job growth."

Brown's fellow UC Berkeley alum, who will serve without compensation, knew Brown's sister, former California Treasurer Kathleen Brown, when she headed private banking at BofA. But he's not at all well-known in California political circles. Which may actually be part of the point, of course.

So what does this appointment mean? That Brown is quite serious about pursuing a grand business-labor coalition to finally solve California's chronic budget crisis, with an eye to the November 2012 elections. He has his publicly low-key senior advisor and operator who can deal with the business world.

Brown believes that, with regard to the overall economy, the state plays the role in helping provide fundamentals: Education, research, infrastructure. It's his mission to safeguard as much of these essentials as possible while the state government undergoes a period of retrenchment, in part caused by the global economy and in larger part caused by dysfunctional and destructive politics.

Infrastructure includes things he's talked up before, including water and high-speed rail. The question is how to get them done in a very challenging environment.

The state, as he points out, does not have a federal reserve system. It can't print money, it can't facilitate much in the way of credit.

* Water

Brown has begun moving on water policy, deciding to block the previous appointments of two Republicans, including former state Senate Republican leader Dave Cogdill, to the California Water Commission. Brown intends to proceed with a big water program, a version of which was wrestled through the legislature by predecessor Arnold Schwarzenegger after decades of gridlock, but wants to put his own stamp on it, especially in this time of greater austerity.

He will push for a less expensive version of the $11.1 billion water bond program passed by Schwarzenegger awaiting enactment in initiative form.

Prior to Schwarzenegger getting his program through the Legislature, the last governor to push a major water program was Brown, who was unsuccessful at the ballot box in 1982 with his Peripheral Canal plan. This time he will try for a better balance of environmental and developmental needs in a state with very diverse regional and ideological interests.

* Farm Workers

While the right-wing is not pleased with Brown, neither are elements of the left.

The UFW is staging a march up the Central Valley to pressure Brown into supporting card check legislation he vetoed earlier this summer, and plans a weekend rally at the Capitol. A decades-long close ally of Brown, the union is issuing various statements along the way invoking the history of it all. The UFW noted some Brown family history; namely that Brown argued with his father, then Governor Pat Brown, on behalf of the union cause when the UFW first marched on the Capitol in 1966, with the younger Brown urging his father to join the farm workers as they presented their grievances.

UFW President Arturo Rodriguez, previously put out a statement from along Highway 99 criticizing Brown's appointment of Sylvia Torres Guillen as new general counsel of the Agricultural Labor Relations Board as an insufficient move. Brown had described the appointment as a key enforcement move.

So Brown says now that he is coming up with an alternative to the United Farm Workers' card check legislation, which he vetoed at the end of June. He would adjust the existing law, which he brought into being in 1975, by reducing grower delays on bargaining and forcing the reinstatement of workers fired during organizing drives.

Then California Attorney General Brown joined forces with his predecessor, former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, to sue the Bush/Cheney Administration in 2007 to protect California's greenhouse gas emissions laws.

* Lake Tahoe

After days of unpublicized on-site negotiation last month, Brown and Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval signed a pact last month at the Lake Tahoe summit to reverse declines in the fabled Sierra Nevada lake's clarity and actually heighten its clarity by six inches per year for the next 65 years. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is a party to the agreement and will monitor its progress.

This requires a serious reduction in sediment from development and run-off and vehicle-derived airborne pollution from human activity, and comes in the face of demands for increased development and less regulation on the Nevada side.

The Tahoe Regional Planning Agency was created as a regional agency because the Lake Tahoe watershed crosses a number of political boundaries. The board contains seven members from California, seven from Nevada, and one non-voting presidential appointee.

Brown and Sandoval were joined at Tahoe by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, California Senator Dianne Feinstein, Nevada Senator Dean Heller, and various federal, state, and local officials.

The two governors have agreed to visit each other's capitals -- Nevada's is Carson City, not far from Lake Tahoe, and California's is, of course, Sacramento -- to discuss the joint effort with legislators from the two states.

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