When Gov. Jerry Brown took the stage Wednesday to deliver his second State of the State address, he wasn't there to talk about the past.
Brown's calls for new taxes may have echoed some of the problems facing California – including a projected $9.2 billion budget shortfall which he hopes to bridge with a combination of cuts and new taxes. But the Governor termed the state as “on the mend,” calling for large investments in green jobs and high speed rail which he says will accelerate California's rebound.
“California has problems, but rumors of its demise are greatly exaggerated,” Brown said, echoing Mark Twain.
Brown's recovery plan hinges in large part on green job creation, which he cites as well-paying – even if those jobs are currently few and far between. That job count will rise, Brown said, as businesses adapt to state regulatory moves forcing increased renewable energy usage and greenhouse gas reduction, both of which he says will stimulate the growing sector of the economy.
“In the beginning of the computer industry, jobs were numbered in the thousands. Now they are in the millions,” Brown said. “The same thing will happen with green jobs. And California is positioned perfectly to reap the economic benefits that will inevitably flow.”
Brown also sees California leading the nation in the development of a high-speed rail system, with 220-mile-per-hour trains traveling from San Francisco to Los Angeles. The development would generate jobs, he says, as well as providing needed transportation infrastructure at lower cost than airport and highway construction.
The $98.5 billion plan has been sharply criticized by legislators and independent analysts as too costly in recent months, but Brown railed against critics, who he said lacked vision.
The other admittedly “enormous” problem facing Brown this year is the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, which looks to both restore the Delta ecosystem and create a reliable water supply. That water could supply 25 million Californians and millions of acres of farmland, Brown said, while simultaneously creating 100,000 acres of new habitats.
School reform in order
Brown called for the state to step back from the business of managing California's schools, granting more decision-making power to local school boards, principals, and teachers.
His budget proposal would change school funding from a categorical, program-based system to a weighted student-centered formula which offers a base level of funding and additional money for disadvantaged students and non-native English speakers. The move would simplify funding, he says, while giving schools the flexibility to meet the needs they see.
Brown also says he would alter accountability standards by reducing the number of tests, and making results available to schools within weeks, rather than months. He advocated a qualitative assessment system, where each classroom is “visited, observed, and evaluated.”
Brown will also work to reform pensions, and ensure that prison realignment is working, he said.
Taxes needed, before growth plans
Putting California's fiscal house in order is the first step, Brown said.
To do so, he will ask voters to approve two new taxes, to be collected through 2016: a half-cent sales tax increase, and an increased income tax on those earning more than $250,000 singly.
Should those taxes fail to pass, Brown's proposal calls for trigger cuts to K-12 education equivalent to three weeks of the school year, courts, flood control, fish and game, one in five park rangers, and all state park lifeguards.
Even should the taxes pass, Brown's budget proposal calls for $4.2 billion in cuts, reducing funding for child care programs, cutting welfare, and moving Medi-Cal and Medicare recipients into managed care plans.
“The cuts are not ones I like but the situation demands them,” Brown said. “As for the initiative, it is fair. It is temporary.”
State Republican leadership, who last year blocked Brown's tax proposal, continue to oppose new taxes. Senate Republican Leader Bob Huff (R – Diamond Bar) cited the 2012 budget battle, when Brown insisted on taxes but leaders were able to balance the budget with increased revenues from the recovering economy.
“Senate Republicans believe the focus should be to streamline government and help create new jobs to put Californians back to work,” Huff said. “The Governor’s $25 billion proposed tax hike will strangle our recovering economy.”
Though budget debates will rage on through summer, Brown's upbeat message rang through his State of the State address.
“Contrary to those critics who fantasize that California is a failed state, I see unspent potential and incredible opportunity,” Brown said.
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