California’s next leader: We hope you paid attention to Brown’s final State of State

Brown: All of us have a role in defending democracy

Gov. Jerry Brown reflected on his great grandfather’s immigration to close out his final State of the State address on Jan. 25, 2018.
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Gov. Jerry Brown reflected on his great grandfather’s immigration to close out his final State of the State address on Jan. 25, 2018.

Gov. Jerry Brown can be forgiven for dwelling in his 16th and final State of the State address on legacy projects and urging their completion, though he despises the concept of legacy.

The speech delivered Thursday to legislators, constitutional officers, Supreme Court justices and others in the Assembly chambers was a reminder of his successes and unfinished business, and a message to his successor. We hope that person was paying attention. Bipartisanship matters. So do roads and other infrastructure. So does limiting spending, though a state of 40 million people cannot operate on the cheap.

As his speeches go, it was long, 30 minutes or so. Brown omitted Latin phrases, was light on California history and offered no quotes from dead philosophers, though he did invoke the Ten Commandments in what, to our mind, was the most significant aspect of the speech: his continuing effort to balance criminal justice with mercy in a way that pencils out.

In this second stint at governor, Brown restrained any yearning toward higher office. That freed him to reduce the prison population, which would have been perilous for a politician looking to run for, say, president.

Brown issued what for him was an unusual call for more mental health care and drug treatment, issues long advocated by The Sacramento Bee’s editorial board. In the coming fiscal year, California expects to raise $2.2 billion from a voter-approved income tax surcharge on wealthy Californians for mental health care. And yet too many mentally ill people still wander the streets without shelter, using drugs to self-medicate.

Caring for severely mentally ill people is complicated and costly, and thus easily ignored by politicians. But as they look to reduce homelessness and provide wise solutions to crime, Brown and legislators would do well to focus on improving these vulnerable Californians’ lives.

Also noteworthy was Brown’s call for a greater focus on forest health, another issue we have encouraged. Forest fires emit huge amounts of greenhouse gases, and reducing them must become a greater component in the state’s fight against climate change.

Brown arrived in office in 2011 facing a $27 billion deficit, and will leave the next governor with a rainy day reserve of $13.5 billion. That’s an important part of his legacy, a pragmatic solution to the next recession, and an implicit warning to any aspiring big spenders.

Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, the front-runner to replace him, told reporters after the speech that Brown was handing off several batons to the next governor, among them a high-speed rail line between Fresno and San Jose, a costly project with vocal opponents. Some legislators want an audit. That might be reasonable, though even if few problems are found, dug-in critics won’t be mollified.

High-speed rail is easy for politicians to oppose. But it employs 1,500 people, most of them in the Central Valley. It’s the biggest public works project ever undertaken that provides direct benefits to the Fresno area, and would help boost the Valley’s economy by providing a seamless transportation link to big Bay Area employers, which is why The Bee’s editorial board supports it. We hope the next governor will continue pushing for the project’s completion. In the long run, it will be far cheaper than new airports and freeways.

Brown also made a specific reference to the need build “tunnels” to move water across the Delta to Central Valley farms and cities in Southern California and the Bay Area. The project’s future is uncertain at best. Water reliability and an improved Delta ecosystem are important, but that complicated call may fall to the next governor.

Brown made a point of thanking Republicans for their votes on legislation to overhaul pensions, workers’ comp and a massive water bond, among others. The point was clear: The best solutions come from compromise, not brute partisan force.

Brown went so far as to tell Republican legislators that he would “have their back” if they are challenged in coming elections for having voted to extend the cap-and-trade program. A Democratic governor coming to the aid of Republican legislative candidates truly would be extraordinary.

But California is a long way from Washington, which is for the best, and Jerry Brown has been a different sort of governor. Whoever succeeds him should watch, and learn.

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