The Little Governor Who Could?

Thursday, January 24, 2013

“I think I can, I think I can, I think I can . . .”

And so, by invoking kid lit, did California Gov. Jerry Brown attempt to encourage state lawmakers to speed forward on high-speed rail – a grossly unfunded plan that requires a childlike innocence and naïvete believe it can actually work.

It wasn’t the biggest oddity in Brown’s State of the State address, which transpired Thursday morning in Sacramento. That honor would go to the Governor’s tortured delivery. It was herky-jerky, over-caffeinated and, because it lacked the calming presence of a TelePrompTer to keep the man’s head elevated and allow time for lawmakers to break in for applause, had the look and feel of an anxious protest outside the college dean’s office (something Brown might have done when he was governing back in the ‘70s, or attending Cal-Berkeley in the early ‘60s).

About Brown’s address: It lasted 24-plus minutes, which is a filibuster by Jerry Standard Time. He started with a polite warning to lawmakers not to go on a spending spree (talk about throwing a wet blanket on the affair). It wasn’t until the Guv ventured into education that he earned sustained applause. Then again, by speeding through his delivery, Brown didn’t give lawmakers much of a chance for an attaboy.

Brown’s policy? He wants to revamp future funding for California’s K-12 system – i.e., class warfare under the guise of better schools. Republicans will hate it (not that they’ll have a say in the matter); Democrats will have to weigh the merits of playing to their political base (Latinos and African-Americans) versus a possible backlash in California’s suburbs, which wouldn’t be rewarded as generously under Brown’s plan.

The stronger applause came during the Governor’s tough line on higher education – he’s against tuition hikes. Maybe he’s sending a signal: if there’s a budget surplus and you must spend it, send it UC’s and CSU’s way.

And now I understand why I’m a fan of keeping these speeches to 12 minutes or less: the second half of Gov. Brown’s speech. After brushing on economic growth and global warming, he dove quite literally into the deep end of the pool: California water policy. The Governor wants to dig two tunnels under the state’s Sacramento-San Joaquin Rover Delta (“yes it’s big,” Brown said, but so is the problem.”). His price tag: $15 billion. Environmentalists think it’s folly; as with last year’s tax increase, one wonders which Jerry Brown prefers – the plan, or knowing getting the plan enacted means defying political odds.

Finally, the sermon from the mount on high-speed rail.

France and Spain have it, Brown argues, so should California (one supposes the Golden State should havethree-hour siestas and revisit its anti-smoking laws). The Governor said he’ll “explore long-term funding options”. He could have easily as said: “No one knows how we’re going to pay for this.”

Here’s one clue: Morocco. It’s a dubious priority for an impoverished country with other needs – and only possiblethanks to loans and donations from other countries. Is this California’s future?

Having written a few of these speeches myself, I’m always struck not just by what was said, but what went missing.

In this speech, three things:

1)  Guns. Jerry Brown is a former state attorney general and, before that, a mayor of Oakland, one of America’s most violent cities. California, mercifully, hasn’t been host to a school massacre of late, but it suffers from the steady drip of inner-city homicide. On the same day that Dianne Feinstein, California’s senior senator, proposed a new assault weapons ban, not a peep out of the governor on the mayhem plaguing his state’s big cities. Strange.

2)  Immigration. In theory, President Obama will push for a reform package this year; Republicans may be willing to cut a deal. One area of compromise between the warring factions: keeping tech jobs in the U.S. Obviously, it’s a big deal to California and its vibrant tech sectors (Silicon Valley, L.A.’s Silicon Beach). Singling out Laurene Powell Jobs (Steve’s widow) for getting involved in the legalization debate would have been a nice touch.

3)  Heritage. 165 years ago on this day. James W. Marshall stumbled upon gold in the cool, clear waters of California’s American River (ironically, Marshall never struck it rich). You know the rest of the story – from the original 49ers to the Super Bowl 49ers, yadda, yadda, yadda. Such an anniversary is a rhetorician’s best friend – to remind folks of a fabled past, and to sketch a gilded future. Brown didn’t mention the landmark event. Instead, he dwelled of accomplishments of the past two years. His myopia was disappointing.

Where do we go from here? Pretty much where California stood before the State of the State: the state budget is in a better place than it was a year ago; big challenges (schools, infrastructure) may or may not be addressed in a state capital largely defined by short-termers, short-term thinking and fiscal short-sheeting.

Not a sorry state, but one that’s fragile.


Follow Bill Whalen on Twitter: @hooverwhalen