When Gov. Jerry Brown strode up to the Assembly podium in January 2011 to deliver his State of the State speech, he had just inherited a California with a $27 billion deficit — and the low-hanging budget fruit was already pruned.
“California faces a crisis that is real and unprecedented,” he told the audience. “Each of us will have to struggle with our conscience and our constituencies as we hammer out a sensible plan to put our state on a sound fiscal footing, honestly balance our budget and position California to regain its historic momentum.”
That year, Brown called for spending cuts and a ballot measure that would extend some expiring tax increases. But his negotiations with a group of legislative Republicans collapsed, the tax hikes expired and only the cuts were made.
Now, seven years later and a budget nearly $50 billion larger than when he returned to the Capitol to begin his second stint as governor, Brown will enter the Assembly chambers one final time Thursday morning to — as the California Constitution reads — “report on the condition of the state.” Brown is entering his record 16th and last year as governor.
His State of the State speeches since 2011 offer a look into California’s tumultuous years with Brown at the helm: a budgetary moment of truth, an economic boom, and — most recently — a pivot to resisting President Trump.
In 2012, after failing to negotiate a budget deal with Republicans, he described “unfinished business” during his State of the State facing a budget crisis. “Again, I propose cuts and temporary taxes. Neither is popular but both must be done.”
During that speech, he asked voters to approve the tax measure that became Proposition 30. And voters abided, making Brown's 2013 State of the State a victory lap.
“California has once again confounded our critics. We have wrought in just two years a solid and enduring budget. And by God, we’re gonna persevere and keep it that way for years to come,” he said, drawing cheers from many of the state lawmakers in the chamber. “Against those who take pleasure, singing of our demise, California did the impossible.”
So began a familiar pattern: Each year, the governor would warn against permanent spending increases — but eventually agree to some new select investments pushed by Democrats.
With California's economy booming and tax revenues gushing in, Brown turned to one of his favorite biblical parables in his 2014 State of the State address:
“Boom and bust is our lot, and we must follow the ancient advice, recounted in the ‘Book of Genesis,’ that Joseph gave to the Pharaoh: Put away your surplus during the years of great plenty so you will be ready for the lean years which are sure to follow.”
The governor negotiated a bipartisan ballot measure to create a “rainy day fund.” And his final re-election race that year was a cakewalk.
On January 5, 2015, Brown took the oath of office for his record fourth term as governor and combined his inaugural address with the State of the State.
“Yes, California feeds on change and great undertakings, but the path of wisdom counsels us to ground ourselves and nurture carefully all that we have started,” he warned during that address. “We must build on rock, not sand, so that when the storms come, our house stands.”
Brown continued to shepherd what he considered to be responsible spending increases: education, health care, child care, a minimum wage hike. The general fund — which sank to $86 billion in Brown's first full year back at the Capitol — now appears set to top $130 billion.
Perhaps that's why Brown sounded this unusual note in his 2016 State of the State address.
“You’re not gonna hear me talk about new programs today,” he said. “Rather, I’m gonna focus on how we pay for the commitments we already have.”
Then came the election of President Trump.
Last January, just four days after Trump's inauguration, the governor did not mention the president by name. But that 2017 speech took on a different tone.
“This is a time which calls out for courage and for perseverance. And I promise you both,” Brown said.
He vowed to defend California's immigrants and continue the fight against climate change. And he ended by quoting Woody Guthrie's progressive folk anthem, “This Land is Your Land”:
Nobody living can ever stop me
As I go walking that freedom highway
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me.
He then brought his speech to a climax as he moved from “This Land is Your Land” to ad-libbing a line from the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”:
“California is not turning back. Not now, not ever. His truth is marching on!”