Other than a few unscripted jokes, California Gov. Jerry Brown’s record 14th State of the State address was a no-frills speech from a no-frills governor.
Unlike other governors – and even himself in years past – Brown did not propose anything new Thursday. Instead, he focused on what he believes are California’s existing – and unmet – challenges.
Mere moments after Lieutenant Governor – and 2018 gubernatorial candidate – Gavin Newsom introduced Jerry Brown, the current governor noted he still has three years left to serve:
“That is, unless I take my surplus campaign funds and put a ballot initiative on the November ballot to allow fourth-term governors to seek a final fifth term," Brown said.
It was a not-so-subtle reminder that this governor does not consider himself a lame duck.
A Cautious Approach
But this speech lacked the same energy that has surrounded many of Brown’s previous addresses, including his inaugural address last year. Instead, he took a more cautious approach.
“The challenge,“ the governor said, “is to solve today’s problems without making those of tomorrow even worse.“
Brown recalled the painful recession-era budget cuts and criticized the governing decisions that led to them. And he vowed not to make those mistakes again.
“If we’re to minimize the zigzag of spend-cut-spend that this tax system inevitably produces, we must build a very large reserve.“
“Ideology and Politics“
And yet, the governor reiterated his calls to find new funding sources for the state’s health care program for the poor – and later, for road and highway repairs.
“Sooner rather than later, we have to bite the bullet and enact new fees and taxes for this purpose. Ideology and politics stand in the way, but one way or another, the roads must be fixed,“ Brown said.
That line drew applause from Democrats – but not Republicans, whose votes will be needed for the governor’s proposed revenue increases.
Brown chose not to mention either of his two high-priced – and controversial – infrastructure projects: the Delta tunnels and high-speed rail. But he gave a strong defense of his record fighting poverty, in response to criticism that he has not done enough.
And after spending his entire speech on California’s challenges, he closed on a high note, saying the state will find the right path forward.
“Yes, it is clear that California is still The Great Exception. We dare to do what others only dream of.“
Then came the postgame show:
“Clearly, the State of the State is better than it has been in years,” Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins told reporters.
Both the speaker and Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León said legislative Democrats agree with the governor’s message of fiscal discipline:
“Be mindful, this is something that was done collectively. This is separations of power,“ De León said.
But in the next breath, they called for “targeted” help for struggling Californians.
“We've got to make certain investments in the long run that will lift people out of poverty to become income earners and contribute to the state coffers,“ De León added.
Republican leaders suggested they’re open to discussing raising revenues for roads and Medi-Cal, but they’ll need a few things in return.
Senate GOP Leader Jean Fuller pointed out that Brown refuses to repurpose $1 billion in truck weight fees that are supposed to be used for transportation but were diverted during the recession.
“We believe that there is money there that the people have already voted for that needs to be redirected to the original cost,“ she said.
Assembly Minority Leader Chad Mayes made a larger point.
“It’s fascinating. Every time that you ask a Republican, you ask them, are you willing to go up on taxes? I would ask my Democratic colleagues if they’re willing to create efficiencies in government.“
Still, Brown emerged relatively unscathed – suggesting he may not be such a lame duck after all.