SACRAMENTO — Gov. Jerry Brown on Wednesday delivered a dual message in his annual address to the Legislature — that a California resurgence is well underway but is threatened by economic and environmental uncertainties.
Chief among those uncertainties is the severe drought that is gripping the nation’s most populous state and already forcing water cutbacks among farms and cities, and it could exact a financial toll on the state’s improving finances.
In the State of the State address, Brown said it was not clear what role heat-trapping gases have played in creating three years of dry weather, but he said the excessively dry conditions throughout California should serve “as a stark warning of things to come.”
“This means more droughts and more extreme weather events, and, in California, more forest fires and less snow pack,” he said, a week after declaring an official drought.
“Everyone is worried about the drought, but I’m more worried about the jobs drought,” said Sen. Ted Gaines (R-Roseville), whose 1st Senate District includes Nevada County. “We’ll see rain again, but when will we see the end of this man-made jobs wasteland? California has to put job creation at the front of the agenda.”
Gaines did not discount the drought, though, calling for a separate State of the State just to talk about water issues.
“Our reservoirs are puddles and the Sierra snowcaps in my district are nowhere to be seen. This is a crisis,” he said. “We need a massive investment in new water storage and we need it now, not delayed by decades of environmental lawsuits or Delta Smelt deliberations. This is a growing state and our infrastructure needs to grow along with our people.”
Brown, who has delivered more State of the State addresses than any other governor in California history, also touched on the state’s turnaround from years of budget deficits to projections of surpluses, and noted his continued efforts to reduce the state’s prison population and equalize public school funding.
He noted that a million new jobs have been created since 2010 and that the state faces budget surpluses in the billions of dollars for the foreseeable future, thanks to a surging economy and tax increases approved by voters in 2012.
“What a comeback it is,” he said as he opened his address.
“California has punched its way off the ropes and is on firmer footing than it has been in years. Unemployment is still far too high. Regulations are still too complex,” Gaines said in a statement following Brown’s address. “Taxes are too far out of line with our competitor states. But I am optimistic that if we live up to the Governor’s call for prudence, show common sense and practical restraint on government growth, our state will start to recapture some of the magic that has long set us apart.”
Brown also said California continues to face financial challenges that could imperil its future, including $100 billion in pension liabilities for state workers, teachers and judges, tens of billions more to cover retiree health care and $65 billion for upkeep of roads and other public works.
“We need to deliver a budget that makes it clear that politicians have learned the lean-year lessons about reckless spending promises,” Gaines said. “Now is the time to pass a responsible budget that shows the people that government will not stand in the way of a further recovery.”
Brown, 75, only briefly mentioned the $68 billion high-speed rail project that is a priority of his but has lost much of its public support and is under scrutiny.
The governor has not yet declared whether he will seek re-election, although he is widely expected to do so and has collected nearly $17 million for a campaign. It would be his last term as governor after serving from 1975 to 1983 then returning to the office in 2011. Alluding to his tenure, he said, “My message: There is no substitute for experience.”
Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, R-Twin Peaks, one of two Republican candidates who have announced they will challenge Brown this year, said Brown’s speech seemed like a campaign rollout but was devoid of solutions to restoring California’s prosperity, repairing its infrastructure and cutting regulations.
“I was shocked by the complete lack of any cognizance of how most Californians feel,” Donnelly said.
Neel Kashkari, a former U.S. Treasury official who announced his candidacy for governor on Tuesday, likewise criticized Brown for failing to address issues of poverty, low-performing schools and the state’s unemployment rate, which remains at 8.5 percent.
“The state of the state is devastating for millions of Californians,” Kashkari, a Republican, said in a statement. “Instead of doing the hard work of fixing these problems, Gov. Brown is focused on touting record-high spending and building a crazy train that the state doesn’t want and can’t afford.”
Brown’s address came less than two weeks after he delivered his state budget proposal for the fiscal year that starts in July, outlining a vision for the state that embraces frugality even as tax revenue soars to a record level.
The $106.8 billion general fund he proposed is nearly 9 percent more than spending in the current fiscal year. That includes $45.2 billion for K-12 schools, a year-over-year increase of nearly $4 billion.
Brown’s vision for how the education money is to be spent, laid out in last year’s address, is starting to take effect.
Last week, the state Board of Education approved sweeping new rules that direct school districts to funnel billions of dollars of new revenue toward schools that serve high numbers of students from low-income families, who are English-learners or are in foster care. The additional money is generated partly by temporary increases in sales and income taxes that Brown persuaded voters to approve in 2012.
He is likely to spend much of the first half of the year in arguments over spending with Democratic lawmakers. After years of cutbacks to favorite programs, many are anxious to restore funding for some existing programs and launch new ones.
Assemblyman Luis Alejo, D-Watsonville, said he was pleased that Brown’s proposals align with what he said are the Assembly budget committee’s priorities.
“By instituting a rainy day fund, paying down the state’s burdensome wall of debt, and supporting proposals that advance these goals, we can ensure that education and other vital services in California are protected from the volatile nature of today’s economy,” Alejo said.