Gov. Jerry Brown warned about the risk of nuclear ruin, environmental catastrophe and political poison, declaring in a sweeping speech Thursday that existential threats to the planet would require more engagement from U.S. and global leaders.
In his 16th and final State of the State address, Brown barely mentioned President Donald Trump and ignored his liberal state’s jousting with the federal government. Like his predecessors, he instead cast California as an exceptional place built on generations of dreams and perseverance, emphasizing his role with the Legislature to claw back from the brink of financial ruin. With just a year left in office, Brown also delivered an animated defense of signature projects under attack.
The Democratic governor, who took the rostrum to an extended standing ovation and chants of “Jerry! Jerry! Jerry!” cited a decision earlier in the day by the science and security board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists to move the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock 30 seconds closer to catastrophe. At 2 minutes to midnight, the clock is now as close as it was at the height of the Cold War in 1953, Brown said.
“Our world, our way of life, our system of governance – all are at immediate and genuine risk. Endless new weapons systems, growing antagonism among nations, the poison in our politics, climate change,” Brown said. “All of this calls out for courage, for imagination and for generous dialogue.”
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Brown has witnessed and delivered year-opening speeches in the Assembly chamber going back nearly six decades. There was the 20-year-old seminarian watching his dad, the late Gov. Pat Brown, present his first inaugural address in 1959, and the 36-year-old Brown being sworn in on Jan. 6, 1975, when the median home price was just $41,600. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak had not yet invented their personal computer when he first took office, as Brown noted in his 2011 address, when he returned to the Capitol to serve historic third and forth terms.
Having mounted three failed bids for the presidency, Brown, now 79, long ago assumed the mantle of elder statesman imparting wisdom on a state he will soon have to hand over. Citing the Women’s March and push to shield so-called “dreamers” from deportation, he said California was at the forefront of movements to expand protections for women and immigrants.
“All of us – whatever our party or philosophy – have a role to play in defending and advancing our democracy,” Brown said.
On Thursday, he returned repeatedly to themes of broader cooperation and bipartisanship to cure the toxicity coursing though politics. Brown thanked Trump for delivering “substantial assistance” following devastating wildfires and other natural disasters. He nodded to Republican U.S. Sens. John McCain, Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins for voting against a GOP-led effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act. At another point, he praised Republican lawmakers in California for joining him in overhauling the pension and workers’ compensation systems, and for putting up votes to secure a rainy day budget reserve, a $7.5 billion water bond, and to extend the cap-and-trade climate auction program.
To the eight Republicans who crossed party lines to back his cap-and-trade deal, Brown promised, to applause from the mostly Democratic chamber: “Don’t worry. I got your back.”
Brown did, however, reserve a moment of tough talk toward Trump, but did not mention him by name. He said the world generally is in sync that action is needed on climate change, but noted: “All nations agree except one and that is solely because of one man: our current president.”
To that end, he announced plans to convene a task force of forestry experts to review how the ecosystems are managed and suggest ways to reduce the threat of fires.
Over the roughly 30-minute address, sprinkled with factoids like the 234,000 words contained in the Penal Code in 1965, Brown offered a staunch defense of last year’s $52 billion gas tax and vehicle license fee increase to pay for road and transit repairs, saying he would do everything in his power to defeat any repeal that qualifies for the November ballot.
Brown highlighted plans in his final budget proposal to link K-12 education spending with local accountability plans to better track progress of English learners and students from low-income families, and low-cost, online courses designed to serve the 2.5 million Californians between 25 and 34 who are working and lack certificates or college degrees.
He implored lawmakers to examine the need for more mental health and drug treatment programs, along with better training and education for prisoners and past offenders, and urged them to consider the overall criminal justice system rather than reflexively enacting new laws because of horrible crimes and lurid headlines.
Reaction to his rosier assessment of the state fell along predictably partisan lines. Assembly Republican Leader Brian Dahle lambasted Brown’s vision of a thriving state. He said laws Brown signed that are driving up fuel taxes, energy costs and the minimum wage have left behind ordinary citizens and chased away businesses.
“The cost of living is too high in California,” Dahle, of Bieber, said. “We haven't built many homes in California, and it’s hard to grow an economy when you can't afford to live here.”
Though largely offering praise for the speech, some Democrats acknowledged they also would have liked to hear Brown address California’s mounting housing crisis.
“We're going to talk to the governor quite a bit about continuing our efforts on housing throughout the year,” Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon said after the speech.
Brown did devote extended stretches of his speech to two signature projects – twin water tunnels under the Delta and a high-speed rail system, considered central pieces of his legacy. Both efforts face considerable political resistance and cost pressures. Brown argued the rail, a punching bag of Republicans here and in Washington, is not unique in having to overcome obstacles. From the Golden Gate Bridge to the Bay Area Rapid Transit System to the Panama Canal, nothing so ambitious comes easy, he offered.
Even as supporters fret over cost increases, to $10.6 billion for the first segment from Madera to Bakersfield, Brown said the link between San Jose and San Francisco, an electrified Caltrain, is financed and ready. Another $1 billion, with matching funds, will be invested in Los Angeles to improve Union Station and fix the Anaheim corridor.
“Yes, it costs lots of money, but it is still cheaper and more convenient than expanding airports and building new freeways to meet the growing demand. It will be fast, quiet and powered by renewable electricity and last for a hundred years,” he said.
Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, a leading contender to succeed Brown in the governor’s office, said the governor was right to make the case for his major infrastructure projects. While critical of the “misleading” business plans put forward by the high-speed rail authority, which caused him to balk at the project in the past, Newsom said he is “up for the task” of completing the bullet train connecting Northern and Southern California.
“I’m supporting the vision. I want to get it done,” he said, a position that largely syncs with his Democratic rivals.
Newsom also praised Brown's openness to scaling back the water conveyance project to a single tunnel, which he said he hoped would lead to a deal. Newsom had previously said Brown asked him to reserve his judgment about the multibillion dollar project.
“This has got to be a top priority in the next administration,” Newsom said after the speech. “You can't walk away from this.”
Democrats Delaine Eastin, a former state schools chief; former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa; and state Treasurer John Chiang all have questioned the twin tunnels concept.
Brown said, simply, that the project is needed to conserve water, protect fish and the habitat in the Delta and ensure water to millions of people. Local water districts are pushing ahead.
“That is true,” he concluded, “and that is the reason why I have persisted.”
STATE OF STATE BY THE NUMBERS
Money. College degrees. Criminals. Gov. Jerry Brown’s final State of the State address Thursday was chock full of numbers and statistics. Among them:
- 2.8 million: Jobs created in the past eight years; “Very few places in the world can match that record,” Brown said.
- $27 billion: Budget deficit in 2011
- $154 billion: California’s personal income in 1975
- $2.4 trillion: California’s personal income now
- 78: Days added to California’s fire season over the last 40 years.
- 331: Prisoners per 100,000 California residents
- 125: Prisoners per 100,000 California residents in 1970
- 5,000: Separate criminal provisions in California that specify “what is criminal, what the penalties should be, what enhancements should be added and what credits might be earned”
- $5.8 billion: Increase in annual higher education funding since 2011
- 2.5 million: Californians between 25 and 34 who are in the workforce but lack a postsecondary degree or certificate.
- 17: Sites that more than 1,500 construction workers are working at to build the state’s high-speed rail system.
- 3: Percent of 1970 budget spent on prisons
- 8.9: Percent of current budget spent on prisons
- 234,000: Words in the California Penal Code in 1965
- 1.2 million: Words in the California Penal Code today; “By comparison, the Ten Commandments run just under 300 words.”
- 10: Commandments; “There are still ten,” Brown confirmed.