Bill Whalen

The issues Gov. Jerry Brown shouldn’t gloss over

If brevity is the soul of wit, then the Jerry Brown who’s about to deliver his final State of the State address as California’s governor is Sacramento’s answer to Will Rogers.

Since returning to the big stage seven years ago, not once has Brown bothered the Legislature with a State of the State lasting more than 25 minutes. I’m not suggesting that Brown don combat fatigues and go the way of Fidel Castro, who once spoke to the United Nations for four-and-a-half hours.


But if his Jan. 25 speech to the Legislature is again briefer than a TV sitcom, the governor will have left a lot of items off the table. Here are a few he should be sure are in his remarks:

Man vs. Nature. On opposite ends of Highway 101, Sonoma County was wracked by fire and Santa Barbara County was buried in mud. The governor must honor disaster victims and first responders, but there’s more to say. Northern and Southern California will recover, but will they rebuild sensibly? Brown could use the two tales of disaster to raise questions about land development, affordable housing, environmental stewardship and – one of his nemeses and near-impossible in today’s Sacramento – CEQA reform.

Poverty. A year ago, state Assembly Republican leader Chad Mayes declared poverty as California’s top issue. While conservatives decry big government and liberals claim data cherry-picking, the fact is that 1 in 5 Californians lives in poverty, the nation’s highest rate. Does Brown attribute this to government dependency, job market shortcomings, inadequate education, the high cost of living or some other menace? If so, what’s the plan?

Pensions. Does Brown’s economic realism (California’s boom eventually will turn to bust) likewise apply to CalPERS’ ability to achieve a 7 percent return rate on investment in perpetuity? Despite this decade’s bull run on Wall Street, the retirement system’s unfunded liability has mushroomed into 12-figure territory. Based on principles of finance rather than government smoke and mirrors, my Hoover Institution colleague Joshua Rauh figures that California taxpayers owe public pension funds about $769 billion – more than $60,000 per household. How to scale that mountain of debt?

Marijuana. Four days into the new year, the Trump Justice Department reversed federal policy on enforcement against state-legalized cannabis operations. That leaves at least 675 licensed California growers, distributors and food production lines in limbo. Brown’s not exactly weed-whacky (“How many people can get stoned and still have a great state or a great nation?” he asked in 2014), but is the California cannabis merchant any different from undocumented aliens likewise inconvenienced by a Trump administration decree?

Sexual misconduct. Brown has had the better part of six decades to observe the spectacle of men (and sometimes women) behaving badly in Sacramento. He doesn’t have to don black, but the governor obsessed with climate should acknowledge the toxic cloud hanging over the Capitol. For a term-limited audience, maybe something as simple as quam bene vivas refert, non quam diu (loosely translated: “It’s how well you live, not how long”).

The man credited with that phrase is Seneca, a son of privilege in ancient Rome and Stoic whose life spanned philosophy, politics and law and had its ups and downs as the great man fell in and out of favor.

Sound familiar?

Bill Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow and former speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson. Whalen can be reached at