THE BLOG
06/01/2013 04:44 pm ET Updated Aug 01, 2013

Jerry Brown Encounters Interesting Times

Governor Jerry Brown is certainly having an interesting time of it lately as California's stabilization continues. Mostly quite good. But hardly all.

Underlying everything is some more promising news on the economy. Longtime expert Steve Levy of the Center for the Continuing Study of the California Economy issued a report noting a big uptick in the construction industry. California's unemployment rate dropped sharply from 10.7 percent in April 2012 to 9.0 percent in April 2013. And the ever so slow recovery is beginning to be felt in some previously near deeply troubled areas.

"Unemployment rates," Levy noted in his missive, "dropped below 10 percent in hard hit areas in Southern California with a reading of 9.3 percent in Los Angeles County and 9.6 percent in Riverside and San Bernardino."

"Job growth for the past year remains above the national average in the (San Francisco) Bay Area, which is leading the state's recovery, but is also above the nation's growth rate in Southern California and San Diego."

The Central Valley is also beginning to pick up, with, as Levy puts it, "above average job growth in the Bakersfield, Fresno, Stockton and Visalia metro areas."

Governor Jerry Brown had some interesting things to say in this UC Berkeley commencement address.

So Brown had more reason to look ahead in his commencement address to political science graduates last week at the University of California at Berkeley. The full text of that speech is here. It turned out to be a major statement.

After addressing the unique characteristics and history of his alma mater, and noting that, as a classics major, he only took one political science course himself, Brown discussed some of the big issues of the future, especially climate change and political participation.

Noting that the last time on this planet that carbon dioxide levels were this high (now an ominous 400 parts per million) was three million years ago, Brown declared: "The changes in our climate are not happening in political time. By Twitter standards, the pace is very slow but inexorable and, most troubling, soon to be irreversible.

"That's the world you face. But you have the skills and the knowledge and a sense of the good. You can make change. Soon you will go into business or government or academia or perhaps a non-profit. Many have told you to get ready for the pressures of the marketplace, for global competition. I tell you: get ready to be an active citizen."

Brown invoked a term, "fugitive democracy," coined by his old political science professor Sheldon Wolin to describe the "episodic nature" of engaged citizen power in a democracy. It came together most recently, he argued, in the passage of the Proposition 30 revenue initiative.

"For an important moment," he said, "Democracy came alive. The power of ordinary people, joining together, made a profound difference.

"I am not saying that the big issues are going to be settled easily, that greenhouse gases will soon be curbed or that inequality will be quickly reversed. But I do affirm, based on my experience, that people can exercise power wherever they are in society. Certainly not on every occasion but, at crucial moments, imaginative and bold people make a difference."

Given that sort of preamble, it seemed only fitting that Brown went on to preside over the joining of hundreds of scientists at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View to release a new call to action on climate change.

There is a new 20-page statement prepared at Brown's urging that addresses five key problem areas including climate disruption, extinctions, ecosystem transformation, pollution, and population growth and consumption.

From there, Brown went on to something of a curtain call at the Bay Area Council's annual Outlook Conference. The moderate business group has become a key part of Brown's governing coalition, playing a major role in his recent efforts in China, helping staff and fund the state's new trade and investment office in Shanghai, and aiding in Prop 30 and other Brown causes.

Of course, part of Brown's public bargain in winning the landslide victory for Prop 30 last November was to give the state a breather in terms of more new taxes.

So a host of proposed tax hikes went bye-bye in the California Senate Appropriations Committee. New taxes on cigarettes, soft drinks, strip clubs, plastic bags, and oil extraction all went to the dread "suspense file." About which there is little suspense.

The good news for Brown, who keeps pushing on his high-speed rail and water projects -- as well as the renewable energy mantle he shares with former Governors Arnold Schwarzenegger and Gray Davis -- continued with word that California"s Tesla Motors has repaid its nearly half-billion federal government loan about nine years early.

Tesla and its CEO Elon Musk (a partial role model for old Brown friend Robert Downey, Jr.'s portrayal of Tony Stark aka Iron Man) and its backers such as former state Controller Steve Westly, a clean tech venture capitalist who was on the Tesla board, were targeted by the Republican right as inept crony capitalists. Naturally, you can hear a pin drop on this issue now.

Brown also gained the backing of the California Teachers Association for his plan to direct more education funding to low-income districts and districts with more English-challenged students, contrary to the stance of some Democratic legislators.

At nearly the same time, California's greenhouse gas cap & trade market, adopted at the urging of then Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, successfully completed its third carbon auction, with prices again rising.

Brown even got another big spiffy profile in an international publication, with noted East Coast writer James Fallows penning a major feature in The Atlantic in "Jerry Brown's Political Reboot." In the piece, which I believe was originally titled "The Fixer," Fallows says of Brown that "in his reprise as governor, he's been as ruthlessly practical as he's been reflective, embracing his inner politician to restore the California dream."

That sounds pretty good.

But it's not all coming up roses.

Brown also stated, following his UC Berkeley commencement address, that the big San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge span opening, slated for early September, won't take place until all potential safety concerns are addressed. There have been problems with some of the steel used in the new span. Steel fabricated in 2008 for seismic safety bolts was made to what might be the wrong specifications.

If there is to be a delay in that particular party while the project, many years in the making, goes through a final inspection, it's not the worst thing in the world for Brown.

He's not exactly geared to big celebratory events as it is. And he's learned patience, even while continuing, on another level, to have a profound impatience.

Of course, it could be an issue for Bay Area commuters. Labor Day weekend isn't just a celebratory time, it's one of the very best times to shut down the bridge without disrupting the area.

California state revenues for May are running a half-billion dollars ahead of Brown Administration projections. Not a bad problem to have, but one that is complicating Brown's insistence on holding the line on spending.

Not surprisingly, Democrats in the legislature were already preparing state budget proposals based on higher revenue estimates than those offered by Brown's Department of Finance.

They have to get whatever alternate plans they may have past a governor who has already vetoed one budget, and under a mid-June deadline affecting their pay.

Of course, there are always options involving trade-offs.

Brown is engaged in a struggle of perception with Democratic legislators over the size of California's budget surplus.

There are now three competing state budget proposals -- the governor's, that of state Senate Democrats, and that of Assembly Democrats. Legislative Democrats want to restore a number of programs cut by Brown and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Brown is rather loathe to do that, because he wants an assured balanced budget going forward not just for the remainder of this term, but for his likely fourth term as governor as well.

He also wants his progressive rejiggering of education finance -- in which more money will be targeted on low-income districts and districts with high proportions of English-challenged students -- to be adopted. He's getting push-back on that.

But he has the ability to negotiate with legislators, with the current big budget surplus providing plenty of ammo. And he has the backing of the California Teachers Association.

He also public favor in his corner.

A new Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) poll finds major support for Brown's state budget, 61 percent to 28 percent.

And when asked whether the budget surplus should be used to restore programs or pay down debt, voters side overwhelmingly with Brown on the latter score, 55 percent to 39 percent.

With quite a few things going well, and just enough going not well to keep a high level of interest for this 75-year old who seems yet to be pushing 35, small wonder that one of Brown's oldest friends and advisors describes him as living "in so much grace."

Oh, is he running for re-election? In other words, for an historic fourth term as California's governor, his tenure split by nearly three decades? What do you think?

Isn't it a question that answers itself?

You can check things during the day on my site, New West Notes ... www.newwestnotes.com.

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