Randall Benton / rbenton@sacbee.com

Gov. Jerry Brown outlines his budget plan last week at the Capitol. The plan projects that Latinos will become the state's largest ethnic group shortly after July 1.

Jerry Brown, at a turning point, delivers State of the State address

Published: Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013 - 2:18 pm

Following two years of crushing budget deficits and an all-consuming effort to raise taxes, here's how good things are for Gov. Jerry Brown: His tax campaign and billions of dollars in spending cuts behind him, Brown was able this month to declare the budget fixed, and all around the Capitol people swooned.

Lawmakers of both parties praised the annual spending plan Brown proposed, and reporters started asking questions about his legacy and any wisdom he might share.

"Jerry Brown – for president," the headline on an opinion column in the Los Angeles Times declared.

You could almost believe it if the third-term governor had not run for president and failed three times before – and if he was not about to turn 75.

Still, Brown's political stock is high. As he prepares to deliver his State of the State address this morning, the Democratic governor appears to have reached a turning point halfway through his term.

"This year could be him establishing his stamp on California," said Kimberly Nalder, director of the Project for an Informed Electorate at California State University, Sacramento. "The first part of his term was backfilling, and he may be looking forward more now – what he can build with his majority, with his victory on Prop. 30."

Nalder said, "Clearly, he wants a legacy."

Only a year ago Brown came into his State of the State address on far shakier ground. He had been battered for months by unsuccessful negotiations with Republican lawmakers over taxes, and his campaign to raise them by a voter initiative was just beginning.

But Proposition 30 passed in November, and Brown's Democratic allies gained supermajorities in both houses of the Legislature. Brown is widely expected to run for re-election in 2014.

In a 9 a.m. speech to a joint session of the Legislature, Brown is likely today to address two major infrastructure projects, high-speed rail and his controversial plan to build tunnels to move water through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to the south.

Brown is also seeking to modify California's signature environmental law, the California Environmental Quality Act, and to overhaul the state's K-12 funding system to give more money to districts with poorer students.

He is lobbying the California State University and University of California systems to expand their online course offerings and to reduce costs.

Brown, governor before from 1975 to 1983, called it "silly" when Spencer Michaels of the PBS "NewsHour" program asked him recently about his legacy.

"I'm here 'cause I like it," Brown said. "I know this job pretty well, and I want to do the best I can in the years that I have."

Brown campaigned for governor in 2010 largely on his promise that he could restore financial order to Sacramento, and it is likely that he will rest his re-election campaign, if he runs, on his handling of the budget.

"For all that we associate Jerry Brown with high thinking and vision and expansive thought, the reality is he was elected in a very pragmatic way, and he will seek re-election in a very pragmatic way, too," said Bill Whalen, a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and former speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson. "I think the reality in terms of giving a 'big vision' State of the State speech, it begs the question in these limited times, 'What can he really propose?' "

Decades after Brown was nicknamed "Governor Moonbeam," Whalen said, "for this second time around as governor, he has not been Moonbeam. If anything, he has been gravity boots, dealing with the reality of the budget and dealing with sensible things."

Brown has not said what he will discuss in the State of the State speech. His press secretary, Gil Duran, said Wednesday that "the governor wrote all weekend, and he's still perfecting it."

Brown focused almost exclusively on the budget in his speech in 2011. He used a more expansive address last year to frame the tax campaign he was beginning. Immediately after speaking last year, Brown flew to media-rich Los Angeles for a repeat performance there.

Today, Brown has no travel planned. With no election looming, he doesn't have to.

"The governor is in a good place," said Larry Gerston, a political science professor at San Jose State University. "The guy defied conventional wisdom. He's riding on the tails of that phenomenal Prop. 30 victory … . Not only did it showcase him as a leader, it put California, temporarily, in decent financial condition, and both of those things are welcome in California."

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