Stopping in Bakersfield on a tour of the state, Gov. Jerry Brown said Tuesday a formal emergency drought declaration would be symbolic, but he’s more concerned with tangible action.
“After I declare it, then what?” he said at a news conference at the Bakersfield City School District, one of several stops in Kern County. “I want to make sure that we’re on a path going somewhere.
“We’re not missing a beat. Everything that can be done today, we’re doing and we will do more. The drought declaration memorializes actions, many of which have already been taken. More can be taken, but at the end of the day if it doesn’t rain, California is in for real trouble. A governor’s declaration can’t make it rain, we all know that.”
The governor has been meeting with water district officials, educators, law enforcers and community leaders on a statewide tour to promote his proposed $155 billion budget.
He wants to use $11 billion to pay down the $25 billion so-called "wall of debt,” or money withheld from schools, special state funds and Medi-Cal during the economic downturn, as well as increase funding for education.
Agricultural interests have been pressuring the governor to invest in long-term infrastructure improvements to the state’s water system, and many of them want a formal drought declaration that would enable the state to ask the federal government for aid to farmers.
Water also was a concern for about a dozen protestors who held up signs in front of BCSD headquarters to protest fracking. That’s an oilfield technique that pumps water, sand and small concentrations of sometimes toxic chemicals underground at high pressures to free up oil and gas reserves.
The water used in that process “could be going to the farming community and homes, but instead it’s being given to the oil industry,” said Juan Flores, a community organizer for the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment.
He called for a moratorium on fracking pending further study to see if it’s safe.
The governor didn’t talk directly to protestors, but he told reporters that “I think the legislature debated hard the whole topic and set in motion a very careful regulatory process with hearings, with scientific analysis and with the collection of data and comments.”
The administration will look “very carefully” at all the information that comes out of that process, Brown said.
Tuesday was the governor’s second day in Kern County.
On Monday, he toured the Lerdo Jail with Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood, District Attorney Lisa Green and other law enforcement officials.
They talked about realignment, the state’s program of shifting responsibility for non-violent offenders from the state to counties to relieve overcrowding at the state’s prisons, as well as educational and rehabilitation programs for inmates.
The governor praised those programs and said the state is prepared to purchase more prison capacity within and out of California to deal with overcrowding.
On Tuesday, Brown met with state Sen. Jean Fuller, R-Bakersfield; Bakersfield City City School District Superintendent Robert Arias, Kern County Superintendent of Schools Christine Lizardi Frazier and other local educators at Evergreen Elementary School.
“It was refreshing to be able to sit down with him and be able to talk honestly about how the schools of Kern County are doing,” Frazier said.
The governor asked a lot of questions about how state education dollars are spent in Kern County, she said, adding that she tried to convey that schools will need a lot more help with staff development and materials as they move to implement instruction based on Common Core, a new set of academic standards.
The administration has pledged to use part of an expected $4.2 billion surplus for education. About $10 billion more would go to schools and community colleges, both of which endured deep cuts during and after the recession.
The governor said revenue from Proposition 30, a tax initiative to pay for education and emergency services, had enabled the state to do that.
He also touted his Local Control Funding Formula, which gives local school boards and administrators more wiggle room to set spending priorities.
“It’s very clear to me that the people who can affect our schools the most, of course, are teachers, principals and superintendents, and the state should be in a supportive role rather than an increasingly prescriptive role trying to issue orders from headquarters,” Brown said.
Asked about possible cuts to Agriculture Education Incentive Grants, which among other things pay for Future Farmers of America programming, the governor said he wasn’t familiar with the grants but schools are free to use their Local Control Funding Formula money for this purpose. The formula gives high schools an extra add-on to reflect higher costs for programs like career technical education.
“I’m very supportive of Future Farmers of America. I’m supportive of education that relates to where students live and what they’re going to be facing in their later life, so if it’s in an area with farming or oil or energy development, that certainly should be part of the curriculum,” Brown said.
The governor also met Tuesday with administrators from Cal State Bakersfield and the Kern Community College District.
CSUB President Horace Mitchell said it was a casual, informal conversation that mostly centered on leadership and building community.
Mitchell said he generally thinks the governor has proposed “a good budget,” but his one concern is that it doesn’t provide more money to expand enrollment in the Cal State University System.
At the news conference, the governor discussed budget priorities such as high-speed rail, defending a plan to pay for rail construction with $250 million from the state’s cap-and-trade program, which collects fees from carbon producers. The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office has said the plan is legally risky and the rail system may not sufficiently reduce emissions.
“A, I don’t agree and B, I think that high-speed rail is a very important opportunity for California,” Brown said. “Many countries in the world have high-speed rail.“America should, as the leading world power, be able to construct a railroad. In the middle of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln and the Congress funded the transcontinental railroad.”
The only alternative is to build more freeways and airport runways, Brown said. Bakersfield doesn’t need the smog or traffic from additional cars and most planes would bypass Bakersfield, so it’s in the city’s best interest to support high-speed rail, Brown said, adding that the rail line connecting northern and southern California would spur economic development and create local jobs.
On the subject of jobs, Brown said the state is rebounding from the economic downturn and pointed to the state’s budget surplus as evidence.
“We had a deficit of $26.6 billion (in 2011), now we have a surplus. That’s real movement,” he said.
That growth is even coming to the Central Valley, Brown said, but he conceded that the valley’s recovery has lagged the rest of the state.
The governor promised to return to the area to get information about the region’s specific concerns.
“I will be back,” he said. “This is not my last visit to Bakersfield. You will see me more often in the months ahead because I like it here.”
Asked if that was because he was running for re-election, the governor quipped, “I’m not running for re-election...yet.”