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Stating the State: Jerry Brown Gets Disciplined and Lays It Out

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Straighten out the chronic crisis of the present and move the state forward into the future. That's Jerry Brown's mission as governor of California this time around, which he laid out rather clearly in his new State of the State address.

He's also making progress early on in clearing the field for his revenue initiative in November.

Brown has articulated everything he said in this speech before. But he hadn't framed it up and put it all together in a coherent way, preferring too often to rely on his improvisational rhetorical skills. And he certainly hadn't ventured out from the capital in the North in any sustained manner to push his program around the state, yet he followed this State of the State address by, in essence, bringing the State of the State to several communities across Southern California on Wednesday and Thursday.

Since a fast declining news media doesn't cover public affairs nearly as well as it used to, especially when it isn't convenient, a leader has to find ways to make it convenient to cover. Which is why Brown delivered essentially the same speech he gave Wednesday morning at the State Capitol in Sacramento to a packed audience in Los Angeles City Hall -- and an accompanying large bank of TV news cameras -- on Wednesday afternoon.

As I wrote in "Jerry Brown 2.0 at 1," marking the first anniversary of his inauguration after talking with him over the holidays, "Brown made it very clear that he intends to keep thinking big even in a time of limits. He wants to push hard for California to continue its leadership role on renewable energy, green tech, and climate change, develop future-oriented transit and water systems, and restructure California government, both by making sense of its sprawling agencies and by realigning services to bring them closer to the people who benefit.

"And all of it in the midst of digging out from under the wreckage of the worst global economic downturn since the Great Depression, in a massively hyper-partisan era, necessitating huge budget cuts and the pursuit of new revenues."

Brown's State of the State address ran largely along those lines.

Brown's Republican opponents, increasingly cartoonish in their reflexive oppositionism, amusingly released their video attacks on his State of the State a day before he delivered it, when the speech was certainly not finished. It was a telling error, allowing Brown to make a joke at the beginning of his speech about their "precognition," a reference to the Steven Spielberg/Tom Cruise film Minority Report.

Here's how he defined the agenda, with a link to the full address:


The year 2012 presents plenty of opportunity and, if we work together, we can:
Stimulate jobs
Build renewable energy
Reduce pollution and greenhouse gasses
Launch the nation's only high-speed rail system
Reach agreement on a plan to fix the Delta
Improve our schools
Reform our pensions, and,
Make sure that prison realignment is working--to protect public safety and reduce recidivism.

Here are several of Brown's key passages, and what they mean.

THE CHRONIC BUDGET CRISIS

Last year, we were looking at a structural deficit of over $20 billion. It was a real mess. But you rose to the occasion and together we shrunk state government, reduced our borrowing costs and transferred key functions to local government, closer to the people. The result is a problem one fourth as large as the one we confronted last year.

My goal then was to balance budget cuts with a temporary extension of existing taxes--if the voters approved. You made the reductions and some very difficult decisions but the four Republican votes needed to put the tax measure on the ballot were not there. So we are left with unfinished business: closing the remaining gap.

Which leads to his initiative for temporary hikes on income taxes for the rich and sales taxes for all. Without the big budget cuts and increased efficiencies, tax hikes of any sort wouldn't be credible.

Incidentally, a new report from the Franchise Tax Board reveals that the number of people with million dollar-plus annual incomes is up a whopping 27% in the last two years. That won't hurt Brown's revenue initiative.

THE "FAILED STATE" MYTH

Contrary to those critics who fantasize that California is a failed state, I see unspent potential and incredible opportunity. Every decade since the 60's, dystopian journalists write stories on the impending decline of our economy, our culture and our politics.

After the mortgage bubble burst in 2007, California lost a million jobs, much of it driven by the over-leveraged construction industry and its financial partners in the under-regulated mortgage industry. The result is a recovery far slower than after the previous six national recessions. But now we are coming back. In 2011, California personal income grew by almost $100 billion and 230,000 jobs were created--a rate much higher than the nation as a whole.

Here Brown is taking on intellectual shallowness and an ongoing tendency, especially pronounced in the East Coast "national" media, to pretend that California is collapsing. This tendency has cropped up repeatedly ever since New York peaked in the 1960s.

HELPING BUSINESS WITH THE BUREAUCRACY

Under the name GO-BIZ, we now have a point of contact at the highest level for businesses large and small.

Brown has established and is emphasizing a new unit in the Governor's Office to work with businesses to make sense of any bureaucratic hurdles for expansion and job creation, consistent with state policy to protect the environment and support workers and consumers.

TRANSITIONING TO A NEW ENERGY ECONOMY

Already California is leading the nation in creating jobs in renewable energy and the design and construction of more efficient buildings and new technologies. Our state keeps demanding more efficient structures, cars, machines and electric devices. We do that because we understand that fossil fuels, particularly foreign oil, create ever rising costs to our economy and to our health.

I have set a goal of 20,000 megawatts of renewable energy by 2020. You have laid the foundation by adopting the requirement that one third of our electricity come from renewable sources by that date. This morning I can tell you we are on track to meet that goal and substantially exceed it. In the last two years alone, California has permitted over 16,000 megawatts of solar, wind and geothermal energy projects.

Brown went on to talk up the long-term potential of green jobs, comparing it to the computer industry. What critics of green tech either don't know or won't say is that the computer industry itself would not have existed without massive government spending, far more than is being spent on renewable energy, both in creating the semiconductor industry and in sustaining the ongoing life cycle of innovation.

Last Friday, Brown signed a pact with U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar to expand a renewable energy partnership first forged with Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, which created the target of 33% of the state's electricity from renewable sources by the end of 2020. The new pact involves needed transmission facilities to make it happen.

CLIMATE CHANGE AND ENERGY INDEPENDENCE

Under AB 32, California has stepped out and crafted a bold plan to deal with climate change and foreign oil dependency.

Here he's referring to the landmark program signed by Schwarzenegger in 2006, which I've written a lot about. Business lobbyists representing the old energy economy constantly attack it, as do their allies in politics and the media. Brown, who joined Schwarzenegger in suing the Bush/Cheney Administration for trying to block California's moves, again signaled his resolve in the speech.

HIGH-SPEED RAIL

Just as bold is our plan to build a high-speed rail system, connecting the Northern and Southern parts of our state. This is not a new idea. As governor the last time, I signed legislation to study the concept. Now thirty years later, we are within weeks of a revised business plan that will enable us to begin initial construction before the year is out.

Critics of the high-speed rail project abound as they often do when something of this magnitude is proposed. During the 1930's, the Central Valley Water Project was called a "fantastic dream" that "will not work." The Master Plan for the Interstate Highway System in 1939 was derided as "New Deal jitterbug economics." In 1966, then Mayor Johnson of Berkeley called BART a "billion dollar potential fiasco." Similarly, the Panama Canal was for years thought to be impractical and Benjamin Disraeli himself said of the Suez Canal: "Totally impossible to be carried out." The critics were wrong then and they're wrong now.

Here Brown is having fun with the historical ignorance of the project's opponents, who naturally count on the ahistorical nature of the media culture.

Big money will have to spent one way or the other on transportation, but this is the way that does not benefit the oil, auto, and airline industries which want to kill high-speed rail before it gets started in this country.

Brown enacted the first study of high-speed rail. Republican Pete Wilson signed the high-speed rail authority into being. Democrat Gray Davis signed the bill to place a $10 billion rail bond on the ballot. Schwarzenegger backed the initiative and was very aggressive in getting billions in federal funding to jump-start the program in California.

But there have been problems. Brown has accepted the resignations of the director of the California High Speed Rail Authority and its chairman of the board.

He is moving the controversial agency within his proposed new mega-transportation agency. He is also naming Dan Richards, the former Bay Area Rapid Transit district chairman who was a young aide in his first administration, as the new chairman of the high speed rail authority.

Senator Dianne Feinstein backs the move, as well as Brown's plan to press forward this year with the first phase of the project.

WATER

Another huge issue we must tackle is water. ... This is an enormous project. It will ensure water for 25 million Californians and for millions of acres of farmland as well a hundred thousand acres of new habitat for spawning fish and other wildlife.

In essence, Brown wants to save the Sacramento River Delta while moving large amounts of water to the rest of the state. His father, Governor Pat Brown, built the State Water Project. During his first go-round as governor, Jerry Brown tried to do what I just wrote.

Since then, only Arnold Schwarzenegger has succeeded in putting together a big water program, an $11 billion water bond, which he got through the legislature late in his term.

Now Brown needs to see how much of that he can get ratified by the voters.

EDUCATION

Next, I want to say something about our schools. They consume more tax dollars than any other government activity and rightly so as they have a profound effect on our future. Since everyone goes to school, everyone thinks they know something about education and in a sense they do. But that doesn't stop experts and academics and foundation consultants from offering their ideas -- usually labeled reform and regularly changing at ten year intervals--on how to get kids learning more and better.

Brown's thoughts on education are multi-faceted and complex, and I refer you to the full text. In a nutshell, and this does not do justice to his views, he wants to return more decision-making to the local level within broad performance guidelines, eliminate "categorical" spending requirements, provide stable increased funding, and streamline testing.

He is less of a believer in standardized testing than I am, and he's not talking about teacher quality. But he's right that there are so many tests now that they can take too long to be usefully assessed and distract from learning.

PUBLIC PENSION REFORM

As for pensions, I have put forth my 12-point proposal. Examine it. Improve it. But please take up the issue and do something real. I am committed to pension reform because I believe there is a real problem.

There is a very real problem. The questions are how big is it, and how impending is it? The public employee unions that largely control Democratic legislators don't want any major changes in a system that doesn't seem sustainable over the long haul. The radical capitalist interests that largely control Republican legislators simply want to bust unions. Brown is trying to work between two extremes.

REALIGNMENT


As for prison realignment, we are just at the beginning. The cooperation of sheriffs, police chiefs, probation officers, district attorneys and local officials has been remarkable. But we have much to do--to protect public safety and reduce recidivism--and together, we'll get it done.

Rather than go on much longer, Brown gave some short shrift to his extensive plans to reorganize state government, which include a fair amount of blowing up present bureaucratic boxes, realigning many state agencies and commissions. But he did touch on his plan to shrink the metastasized state corrections establishment by shifting many inmates back to the local level, which also implies re-thought priorities on incarceration, which is a long article in its own right.

While Brown rolls out his more articulated agenda, he also works behind the scenes to clear the path for his November initiative.

As I wrote over a month and a half ago here on the Huffington Post, the ballyhooed Thing Long Committee's initiative plans to cut taxes for the rich and big corporations while extending the sales tax to all manner of services was bad politics. And as I revealed on December 12th, based on extensive discussions with well-placed sources, the group of billionaires and prominent former officeholders was looking for a way to proceed without, well, proceeding.

This week the other shoe dropped, with the group's announcement that it won't try to do a November initiative to compete with Brown's revenue measure. The group also had proposed a sort of super-committee, amusingly dubbed a "Jedi Council" by one of its boosters, to mess around with initiatives and so forth. There's more to it, but the idea is so ridiculous I've already forgotten most of it.

While Think Long couldn't win, it might have blocked Brown from winning with a well-funded campaign confusing to the electorate leading to a blanket no vote.

This leaves two other potential initiatives dealing with the income tax.

One, the so-called "Millionaires Tax" by California's second-largest teachers union and a coalition of left-liberal groups, is still out there but doesn't have a lot of resources behind it.

Another, by heiress Molly Munger (her father is Warren Buffett's partner), would raise income taxes on most everybody to principally benefit the schools. As I said as soon as I heard of it, I don't see an income tax hike on most taxpayers as a good idea politically, and there's private polling that bears out that very obvious insight. But if she wants to waste her money, that's her prerogative.

While some observers struggle intellectually with the illusion of complexity inherent in getting the current mess under control while moving on plans to build for California's future, Brown presses ahead. This will be a very interesting year. Not because there is any danger for President Barack Obama, who will win handily here, but because the state's future is in play.

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

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