Jerry Brown began his State of the State address Wednesday by defending the annual ritual vis-à-vis critics who say it has become outmoded and irrelevant.
And then he proved the critics correct by delivering a 17-minute speech that was at best a pedestrian pitch for another term, at worst a clunky digest of his past oratory and in the main fell far short of the constitutional mandate to annually “report to the Legislature on the condition of the state.”
While congratulating himself and other politicians for a “California comeback,” the speech offered nothing new, even recycling a previous quotation from the Bible about thrift.
Brown hinted at the no-news-is-good-news approach by opening his speech with, “I appreciate change but I also value continuity” – a far cry from his first stint as governor, when he positioned himself as an agent of sharp social, economic and political reform.
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The unscripted remark – one of the very few – was more or less a retort to Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s “introduction” of Brown that was Newsom’s own mini-State of the State, implying that fresh ideas are needed to deal with economic and political issues.
Brown’s stay-the-course theme permeated the address, warning legislators that they must not risk deficit by overspending a surge of revenue, must create a rainy-day fund against future economic downturns, and must address immense unfunded liabilities for retiree pensions and health care.
But, in keeping with the speech’s atmosphere, he offered no specifics about how to deal with those liabilities, or any other issue he mentioned in passing.
His only comment on the state’s economy was to crow about a million new jobs being created – ignoring the recession-like conditions still afflicting the inland regions he had toured just a week earlier. He did mention, near the end, “too many struggling families,” but that was it.
Brown devoted a minute or so to California’s severe drought and said the state needs more water storage capacity, but didn’t say anything about a water bond to begin actual work, thus indirectly confirming that he doesn’t want new debt on the ballot while he seeks re-election as an advocate of paying down old debt.
Likewise, he devoted just a few words to two big projects he has championed, twin water tunnels under the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and a bullet train – perhaps because both are not popular with voters these days.
It’s sad to see Brown, in his quest to improve his standing in the state’s history books, become such a conventionally cautious politician. He’s capable of better.