Capitol Alert

Gov. Jerry Brown takes fourth oath, targets climate change

Gov. Jerry Brown walks with first lady Anne Gust Brown before being sworn in to office for the fourth time on Monday at the state Capitol in Sacramento.
Gov. Jerry Brown walks with first lady Anne Gust Brown before being sworn in to office for the fourth time on Monday at the state Capitol in Sacramento.

Gov. Jerry Brown, sworn in Monday for a fourth and final term, called in his inaugural address for sweeping changes to fight climate change and for renewed spending on California’s aging infrastructure.

Two months after the Republican Party surged in a dismal midterm election for Democrats across the nation, Brown cast California as a lantern of liberal thought on policies ranging from the environment to health care and protections for undocumented immigrants.

Brown said he will seek to reduce petroleum use in cars by as much as 50 percent within 15 years, make heating fuels cleaner and increase to one-half from one-third the proportion of electricity California derives from renewable sources.

“We must demonstrate that reducing carbon is compatible with an abundant economy and human well-being,” Brown said in a 23-minute speech before a joint session of the Legislature.

Then, on a day steeped in history, the only California governor ever elected to four terms strode onto the Capitol lawn for a hot dog – “Mustard on hot dogs, ketchup on hamburgers,” he told his wife – posed for selfies with admirers and suggested opportunity in the singularity of his achievement.

“Yeah, well, it’s … it’s unusual,” Brown said. “We’re not going to see another one (four-term governor), so I sure want to make the best of it.”

For Brown, the next four years would appear to hold uncommon promise: Not only is he relatively popular, he is now unencumbered by budget deficits that occupied him in his third term and by presidential aspirations that distracted him in the 1970s and 1980s, when he was governor before.

Now 76, Brown is pursuing two legacy projects that remain mired in controversy: one, a pair of massive tunnels to divert water around the Delta to the south, and the other construction of California’s $68 billion high-speed rail system. The governor will travel to Fresno on Tuesday for a ceremonial groundbreaking on the rail project.

In his inaugural speech, Brown offered a buoyant assessment of the state whose financial condition is far brighter than when he returned to office in 2011. In his inaugural address that year, Brown urged “courage and sacrifice” before ordering deep spending cuts and campaigning, successfully, for tax increases that helped eliminate multibillion-dollar budget deficits.

“In 2011, we were handed a mess, and through solid, steady work, we turned it around,” he said Monday. “While we have not reached the promised land, we have much to be proud of.”

Brown said he will address the state’s long-standing retirement and health care obligations “one at a time,” next asking state workers to start paying a larger share of rapidly rising retiree health obligations.

“We must build on rock, not sand, so that when the storms come, our house stands,” Brown said.

Brown’s inauguration followed a re-election campaign in which he faced only meager opposition and trounced his Republican opponent, Neel Kashkari.

Still, Brown faces pressure in Sacramento from Democratic lawmakers to restore cuts made during the recession to education and social services. He is also feuding with University of California officials over their threat to raise tuition if Brown and lawmakers do not give the system more money. Brown is expected to respond formally in a budget proposal Friday.

The liberal group Courage Campaign issued a statement accusing Brown of failing “to address the more than 23 percent of Californians currently living in poverty.” In a hallway outside the Assembly chambers where Brown spoke, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom also lamented the lack of attention to the unevenness of California’s economic recovery.

“We’ve got 6.1 million people living in poverty in two Californias: a very wealthy coastal economy in contrast to a struggling inland economy,” Newsom said.

Noting California’s difficulties with state budgets, education, crime and water, Brown said in his inaugural speech that issues at hand bear “eerie resemblance” to those faced by his father, the late Gov. Pat Brown.

“So, you see, these problems, they never completely go away,” he said. “They remain to challenge and elicit the best from us.”

Brown said California schools next year will receive $65.7 billion, a 39 percent increase in four years. On health care, under the federal health care overhaul, the state anticipates enrolling 12.2 million people in the new budget year, an increase of more than 50 percent, Brown said.

It is the environment, however, on which Brown staked much of his speech – and his administration.

“California basically is presenting a challenge to Washington, to other states and to other countries,” Brown told reporters after his address. “It’s going to take something like what I laid out, but what I laid out is daunting.”

The address drew praise from, among others, Tom Steyer, the billionaire environmental activist who called Brown “very forward looking.” Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles, said that while he isn’t sure if 50 percent goals are obtainable, they are “in the realm of possibility.”

Outside the Capitol, liberal activists mocked Brown’s record on the environment while promoting a march they’ve planned for next month in Oakland to protest his permissiveness of hydraulic fracturing, a controversial form of oil extraction.

One protester wore a giant bobble-head costume in the image of Brown, while others on either side of him pulled at ropes from two directions, symbolizing the pull of oil companies on one side and the “People of California” on the other.

Republicans remain resistant, as well.

“At what point does being on the leading edge of environmental reform impact our ability to create jobs?” said Senate Minority Leader Bob Huff, R-Diamond Bar.

Brown, California’s longest-serving and oldest-ever sitting governor, is barred by term limits from seeking another term in 2018. He has said he will not run for president in 2016, having failed three times before, most recently in 1992.

He offered nothing in his inaugural to clarify what he might do with millions of dollars in leftover campaign funds. Last year, during his re-election campaign, he said he may use the money to “finish with a flourish with some major ballot measure battle” in 2016 or 2018.

Brown has often recounted the difficulties his great-grandfather August Schuckman faced while crossing the Great Plains to California in the 1850s, and after taking the oath on Monday, he nodded again to history.

“We are at a crossroads,” Brown said. “With big and important new programs now launched and the budget carefully balanced, the challenge is to build for the future, not steal from it, to live within our means and to keep California ever golden and creative, as our forebears have shown and our descendants would expect.”

Call David Siders, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1215. Follow him on Twitter @davidsiders. Jeremy B. White and Laurel Rosenhall of The Bee Capitol Bureau contributed to this report.

Related stories from Sacramento Bee