Calif. Gov. Jerry Brown, in his annual State of the State address to the Legislature on Wednesday, had a message for those who incessantly predict the decline of California: You're wrong.
"California has problems, but rumors of its demise are greatly exaggerated," he said. "We're on the move. We're on the mend."
Brown's tone was markedly more optimistic than the annual assessments that governors have offered since the financial meltdown and the onset of the 2008 recession. He based his optimism on the progress the state made last year in bringing down its structural deficit, on 2011 job growth that outpaced the rest of the nation, and the state's continuing role as a leader in renewable energy, scientific innovation and in being a magnet for venture capital investment.
"Contrary to those declinists who sing of Texas and bemoan our woes, California is still the land of dreams," he said.
Brown laid out a 2012 agenda that begins with a budget plan that, pending voter approval of proposed tax increases, would complete the "unfinished business" of closing the remaining gap in a structural budget deficit that he and lawmakers pared by more than half last year.
"I propose cuts and temporary taxes. Neither is popular, but both must be done," he said. "We should finish the job of bringing spending in line with revenues."
A lasting budget fix would set the stage for an ambitious agenda Brown outlined, one that includes reform and reinvestment in public education, opening construction on a high-speed rail project that would eventually connect the Los Angeles basin with the San Francisco Bay area, and laying the groundwork for construction of a new water conveyance system that would ensure more reliable supplies for Southern California and the Central Valley.
In a departure from last year, when some criticized Brown for not aggressively pushing his agenda outside of Sacramento, the governor left the Capitol immediately after his speech for a two-day trip to Southern California in which he was expected to amplify the ideas he laid out in his address to lawmakers.
Republicans assailed Brown's vision, largely because of its reliance on the temporary tax increases he hopes to ask voters to approve in November. The governor's five-year proposal calls for raising the state sales tax by half a cent and income taxes on people who earn $250,000 a year or more.
"Despite some modest job growth, more than 2 million Californians remain unemployed," said Board of Equalization member George Runner. "When Californians have jobs, the state always has plenty of revenue. The governor should be campaigning for jobs, not higher taxes."
Echoed state Republican Party Chairman Tom Del Beccaro: "Gov. Brown still hasn't provided any real plan to bring jobs back to California."
Democratic legislative leaders hailed Brown's vision as a blueprint for moving California forward after years of struggling just to maintain its fiscal solvency.
"We need to eliminate the structural deficit that is crippling our ability to plan proactively for investing in the future," said Assembly Speaker John Perez, D-Los Angeles.
Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, said Brown "combined a positive vision for California with a real path to actually get there."
Brown's full-throated support for high-speed rail comes at a time when the idea is under intense political criticism in the wake of new estimates that it would cost nearly $100 billion over three decades of construction and an assessment from a peer review group that recommended withholding state funding at least until an improved business plan is developed.
Brown has shaken up the management of the High Speed Rail Authority and promised that the new leadership team will soon unveil a revised plan, which he hinted would scrap the original plan to build the first phase over a remote stretch of the Central Valley -- a plan assailed by critics as a train to nowhere.
"We're going to build the first phase so that it, in and of itself, is worth the $2 billion," Brown said.
The first phase of the project would be funded largely by federal money included in the 2009 stimulus package.
"Those who believe that California is in decline will naturally shrink from such a strenuous undertaking," he said. "I understand that feeling, but I don't share it."
He noted that critics have always derided projects of large magnitude, including the Central Valley Water Project, the interstate highway system, the Bay Area Rapid Transit subway and the Panama Canal. "The critics were wrong then and they're wrong now," he said.
Brown also promised by this summer his administration will lay out "the basic elements" needed to complete the Bay Delta Conservation Plan -- including what he described as "an enormous project" to build a new conveyance project that would route water through or around the delta so that it could more reliably be exported to the south through the California Aqueduct.
"It will ensure water for 25 million Californians and millions of acres of farmland," he told lawmakers. "I invite your collaboration and constructive engagement."
In the area of education, Brown urged legislators to embrace his budget proposal to replace categorical funding to schools for specific programs with per-pupil funds that would give local school districts authority to decide how to spend it. He also said he will work with the state Board of Education to reduce the number of standardized tests that are required of California students and to create "a qualitative system of assessments" that will be based on evaluations other than test scores.
And he said that the taxes he proposes are essential for public schools.
"Given the cutbacks to education in recent years, it is imperative that California devote more tax dollars to this most basic of public services," he said. "If we are successful in passing the temporary taxes I have proposed and the economy continues to expand, schools will be in a much stronger position."
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