Bill Whalen

California Governor, Optimist-in-Chief

From where I was watching (the San Francisco Bay Area), the live Web feed of California Gov. Jerry Brown’s State of the State Address froze at the 14-minute mark – naturally, not soon after the guv had explained how the Golden State was an innovative hub second to none.

Ok, cheap shot. It wasn’t Brown’s fault that The Sacramento Bee’s server couldn’t handle the traffic (watch The Social Network enough times and anyone can pretend they really understand how the Internet works).

That said, the frozen image of Brown on my computer screen said two things about this state of my state’s governor:

  1. His head was down, reading from a page-turning notebook. No TelePrompTer – perhaps a subtle way to showcase his vaunted bargain-basement style? Sacramento’s a two-hour-plus drive from Silicon Valley (on a good day). Might as well have been two light years given the low-tech production – the antitheses of his long-on-presentation predecessor.
  2. Something else people do with their head bowed: engage in prayer. And that’s part of the Brown strategy for 2012: prayer and salvation in the form of voters this fall approving his tax-hike ballot measure, otherwise it’s back to budget-cutting purgatory.

As for the big speech (here’s the as-prepared version):

  1. Sacramento’s Resident Optimist. In addition to some fancy political footwork, selling the tax increase requires Brown to be both a realist and California’s optimist-in-chief. The former, because the easiest political sell is convincing voters a temporary jump in sales and income tax is the only practical choice at the point – and a couple of rounds of budgets and revenue that just won’t materialize. And an optimist because the other part of the sell is convincing voters that the California’s on the right track – and will remain so if they stick to the governor’s program (in that regard, I’m guessing Jerry Brown isn’t a Michael Lewis fan). The challenge here for the guv: getting Californians to that feel-good point in November when the days’ news – one-third of California’s unemployed off the job for a year or longer, the nation-state surrendering its G8-sized economic status to Brazil – isn’t so rosy.
  2. High-speed Rail. Brown cleverly tried to re-frame this controversy as one of pessimists being on the wrong side of history – California’s bullet train being no different than state highway construction, the Central Valley Water Project – or building the Panama and Suez Canals. That said, the political reality of high-speed is rail is public support that’s jumped the track, conductors who jumped from the train, and a promised a promised revised business that may or may not hold up to scrutiny. He debate isn’t over whether the train can be built. It’s whether it’s needed and how the state pays for it. That revised plan will pass the union-friendly Legislature; check back in 2014, assuming Brown seeks a second term, to see if it’s a bragging point or a high-speed albatross.
  3. Water. Brown ran for governor on the promise of a “water plan for the 21st Century”. Brown’s plan is ambitious – he wants to build a water diversion canal or tunnel through the San Joaquin-Sacramento Delta – but will it come to fruition? The policy debate over where California gets its water and how it’s used is a fascinating one: north vs. south, rural vs. urban, etc. Equally fascinating is how Brown will move forward on his water plan without doing damage to the $11 billion water bond that will need some pruning if it’s to survive a ballot vote this fall (as a revised bond would require two-thirds approval by the Legislature, this is one issue where the involvement of minority Republicans is germane).
  4. Schools. Too big of a budget item to overlook, but too hot a potato in a year when governor needs teachers’-union dollars and muscle to get that tax increase passed. How’s this for advocating reform, but not really choosing sides in the battle: “The house of education is divided by powerful forces and strong emotions. My role as governor is not to choose sides but to listen, to engage and to lead. I will do that. I embrace both reform and tradition – not complacency. My hunch is that principals and teachers know the most, but I’ll take good ideas from wherever they come.”
  5. Pensions. Brown unveiled a 12-point reform plan back in October. Interestingly, this topic was the biggest deviation point in his speech, when he ad-libbed the following: “Starting tomorrow if you work for 30 years, are you going to live to 80, 90, 110? How much is that? How many people are retired? How many people are working? How many people are coming along? How does it all work out? Anybody who tells me that you feel absolutely confident that 40 or 50 years from now things are all going to be paid for are not looking at the numbers and the other comparable investments.” As with taxes, pension reform is headed to the ballot this fall (for some cities like San Diego, even sooner). Brown deserves credit for setting the bar for an honest discussion: he wants to boost new public employees’ retirement age from 55 to 67, require employees to pay more toward their retirement and health care, end pension “spiking”, and create a hybrid system of guaranteed and 401(k)-style savings. Unfortunately, he may be one of the few Democrats in Sacramento willing to think clear-headedly. Here’s a preview of how the left Democrats plans to chip away at the conservative approach to pension reform – using, ironically, Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s assault on Mitt Romney and “vulture capitalists”.

Brown’s address (viewable here) began with a clever dig at legislative Republicans, noting their leadership issued a response to his State of the State 24 hours before its actual delivery: “I didn’t know that you were psychics and that you possessed the powers of precognition and clairvoyance. After the speech, I want to check with you on some stock tips.”

Stay tuned to find out if Brown’s address is, in any way, prophetic.

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