SACRAMENTO — Praising the discipline that pulled the state from the ashes of recession, Gov. Jerry Brown on Wednesday called on Californians to steel themselves against lingering uncertainties, both natural and man-made.
He sounded a stern warning about calamities that still threaten California, invoking the Old Testament and maxims he attributed to his dog, Sutter, to preach the need for continued restraint in a state burdened by drought and debt.
Brown’s eleventh State of the State address to a joint session of the Legislature, the most of any California governor, lacked the rhetorical flourishes and bold initiatives that marked his previous speeches. Rather, he repeated what has become a mantra: that the state must live within its means.
“We can’t go back to business as usual,” he told an Assembly chamber packed with legislators, state Supreme Court justices and other dignitaries who applauded sporadically during the 17-minute address.
“Boom and bust is our lot,” Brown said, “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.’'
Brown also used the occasion to recap his achievements since taking office in 2011, unlike past years when the 75-year-old Democrat pressed for controversial public projects such as a bullet train and giant tunnels to move water from north to south. And he glided quickly past thorny issues that could drag down his approval ratings in this election year.
He said California still has “too many struggling families.” But he focused mainly on other needs.
“The dangers and difficulties we face can never be taken lightly,’' Brown said.
To drive home the point that Sacramento should not spend its new surplus, for example, Brown brandished a playing card bearing a picture of Sutter and urging frugality.
“Bark if you don’t like deficits,” Brown read from the card. “Don’t let our balanced budget go to the dogs,” said other cards handed out by his staff.
Brown’s call for restraint may collide with plans by legislative leaders to restore money cut from social services in recent years. The governor’s props did not impress Democrats who have criticized him for not devoting more resources to California’s poor.
“I’m going to have cards printed that say, ‘Bark if you don’t like poverty,’ ” said state Sen. Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles).
Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) was more complimentary, describing the speech as “a clarion call to not forget where California came from over the last five or six years.
“The governor wanted to remind us we don’t want to go back to that period,” Steinberg said. “We’ve got too much good ahead of us.”
Brown emphasized the need to address California’s worsening drought, an issue that could pose political problems for him this year. He called on residents to use less water while refraining from any explicit discussion of his tunnel plan.
“Water recycling, expanded storage and serious groundwater management must all be part of the mix,” Brown said. “It’s a tall order, but it is what we must do to get through this drought and prepare for the next.”
He also vowed to lead a trade mission to Mexico, following up on his 10-day visit to China last year. Brown said Mexico, like China, could be an important partner in California’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and combat climate change.
“California can’t do this alone,” he said.
Before launching into his prepared remarks, Brown recalled attending his first State of the State address in 1959, when his father was governor and the junor man was a seminary student, wearing “my robe, my collar and my little black suit.”
Brown, whose first stint as governor began in 1975, said he has changed since that time, when he downplayed the importance of political seasoning. Now, Brown said, he believes “there’s no substitute for experience,” drawing laughs and applause.
Brown penned the address himself, his aides said -- without the Latin phrases and obscure philosophical quotes that have been his hallmark. On its substance, the speech was immediately attacked by Brown’s two main gubernatorial challengers.
Assemblyman Tim Donnelly (R-Twin Peaks), said Brown should return any budget surplus to taxpayers rather than increase spending, because voters approved temporary tax increases in 2012 to shore up the state’s finances.
“If Jerry Brown has a surplus, he should return it to the people he took it from -- the people of California,” Donnelly, a Republican assemblyman from Twin Peaks, said in a written statement. “Instead, he’s giving pay increases to union members while leaving regular, hardworking taxpayers out to dry.”
Another opponent, Republican Neel Kashkari, said in a prepared statement that Brown “may claim a California comeback, but the truth is that he has forgotten the millions of California families who are struggling.
“How many times did the governor mention poverty in his 17-minute address?” the statement said. “Not once. That is outrageous.”
True to form, Brown vowed not to be moved by his critics, choosing instead to focus on California’s long-term stability.
“We will build for the future,” Brown promised. “Not steal from it.”
Times staff writers Patrick McGreevy, Melanie Mason, Seema Mehta and Phil Willon contributed to this report.