In his 16th and final State of the State address, Gov. Jerry Brown largely pivoted away from familiar warnings about California’s future to instead offer a valedictory message on what’s been accomplished since his unprecedented return to Sacramento in 2011.
“Very few places in the world can match that record,” he said on Thursday to an audience of state lawmakers and guests gathered in the Assembly chamber of the state Capitol.
Though a few suggestions were offered on how lawmakers should spend the year, his half-hour speech — the longest since his first tour of duty as governor — may be most remembered for the moment it marked in Brown’s own political odyssey and that of the state’s history.
When he delivered his debut statewide address as governor in 1975 — one of two times he folded the State of the State into his swearing-in ceremony — California’s population totaled some 21.5 million. And as Brown pointed out on Thursday, the state’s total personal income then was $154 billion. Today, there are twice as many people and a 15-fold increase in overall wealth.
Brown, too, has changed. Often portrayed in the 1970s as a young governor in a hurry s who declared Californians must accept “an era of limits,” his final State of the State boasted of a place that can set an important national example of what it means to govern effectively.
Most California governors have used the State of the State address to lay out policy plans for the year ahead, a custom usually followed by Brown in the 1970s and ’80s. In contrast, his recent speeches have been either an ode to the state’s rugged past or a prophecy of its fragile economic future.
This time, the veteran governor spent much of his address delivering an impassioned defense of several items on his to-do list that either have struggled or stalled during recent years — projects that will be far from complete by the time he hands the reins to a successor next January.
That list includes the state’s high-speed rail program and plans for tunnels to carry water southward underneath and around the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, both which remain in limbo. Less than two weeks ago, the train project’s price tag rose by an estimated $2.8 billion.
One of the people seeking to follow Brown, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, offered praise for the governor on both projects but was less specific on whether he would stay the course if elected.
"You've got to give him space to figure this out. I think no one is more attached to getting a deal on this than Gov. Brown," he said after the speech.
In praising his administration’s effort on the bullet train, Brown offered some of his most extensive remarks in years on the project’s worthiness. “I make no bones about it,” he said. “I like trains, and I like high-speed trains even better.”
He then reminded lawmakers in the audience that former governor and President Ronald Reagan promised in 1983 that the Golden State would build a high-speed train.
“Yes, there are critics, there are lawsuits and there are countless obstacles,” Brown said, his voice rising, “but California was built on dreams and perseverance, and the bolder path is still our way forward.”
His defiant tone extended to political opponents now seeking to qualify for the November ballot a repeal of last year’s $52-billion transportation plan. “Fighting a gas tax may appear to be good politics, but it isn’t,” Brown said. “I will do everything in my power to defeat any repeal effort that gets on the ballot, you can count on that.”
The governor has close to $15 million left in a political campaign account that he could use to join the gas tax battle should enough voters sign the petition to repeal the tax increase.
Brown took time to praise the efforts of the Legislature on topics ranging from energy efficiency to a heightened focus on the future burden of paying for public employee pensions. Passage of new laws on these and other efforts “demonstrates that some American governments can actually get something done,” he said.
That oblique reference to Washington was one of several derisive comments in his speech about President Trump and congressional Republicans. He criticized their efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act and to unplug from global efforts on climate change. Both issues have major consequences for Californians and the state’s economy.
On the role of humans in making the planet warmer, Brown said, “All nations agree except one, and that is solely because of one man: our current president.”
In one notable departure from his prepared remarks, the governor praised the handful of legislative Republicans sitting in the audience who broke ranks with their party in 2017 to extend the state’s cap-and-trade climate program.
“You, Republicans, as I look over here and I look over there,” Brown said with a wry smile. “Don’t worry, I’ve got your back!”
The governor linked the challenges posed by the elevated risk of natural disaster to California’s devastating season of wildfires. He promised to soon convene a task force to suggest possible changes in the state’s firefighting strategy.
“Over the last 40 years, California’s fire season has increased 78 days,” he said, “and in some places, it is nearly year-round.”
Less obvious in the speech was the governor’s familiar plea for politicians to be circumspect about the rate of growth in government spending, a key tenet of the $190.3-billion budget blueprint he outlined two weeks ago. Assembly Democrats have for the most part embraced Brown’s approach for the year ahead, while party leaders in the Senate have suggested some of the money might be better served in boosting programs that target California’s most needy.
Instead, he offered a broad view of the road his administration has traveled the last seven years — ticking off accomplishments including a redistribution of K-12 education dollars to disadvantaged students, more money for the state’s colleges and universities and a rethinking of whether criminal justice programs shouldn’t be as much about rehabilitation as incarceration.
“My plea is relatively straightforward: take time to understand how our system of crime and punishment has evolved, how other states and countries have devised their prison systems and what changes might we now make,” Brown said. “I urge that instead of enacting new laws because of horrible crimes and lurid headlines, you consider the overall system and what it might need and what truly protects public safety.”
While the day clearly belonged to Brown, who turns 80 in April, the event nonetheless offered a sense of how little time he has left before term limits force him from office. Two prominent Democrats who are running to succeed him were in attendance as constitutional officers: Newsom and Treasurer John Chiang. A Republican contender, Huntington Beach Assemblyman Travis Allen, watched quietly from his desk on the Assembly floor. The candidates are scheduled to debate Thursday evening.
Brown did not mention the race or offer any advice for the person who will next occupy the office. A statewide poll last month found 53% of Californians surveyed like the way he is doing the job, and an equal number said things in the state were generally going in the right direction. State officials said last week that unemployment in California fell to 4.3% in December — the lowest number in any research dating to early 1976.
The governor, who lingered in the Assembly chamber after the speech to chat and shake hands, invoked the now familiar story of his Gold Rush-era immigrant family, the patriarch of which owned a Northern California ranch where Brown and his wife, Anne Gust Brown, are building a new home. Perseverance, he suggested, is in the state’s DNA.
“We, too, will persist against storms and turmoil, obstacles great and small,” he said. “The spirit of democracy never dies. It’s alive in this chamber, in the hearts of Californians and in people throughout the land.”
Times staff writer Melanie Mason contributed to this report.