Gov. Jerry Brown took a well-deserved victory lap in Thursday's State of the State address, proudly declaring that California is back on track fiscally even as he urged restraint in spending and the passage of new laws to help maintain that restraint.
It's too early to declare the state's economy fixed, but Californians have to hand it to Brown: In his three years in office, he's managed to dramatically change our fiscal outlook for the better. There was no talk of closing parks. No borrowing to plug holes in prison budgets. No slashing of programs or proposals for controversial ballot measures. Instead, in a refreshing change, we heard a governor sing California's praises, and Brown did so eloquently. He thanked the Legislature for passing pension and workers' compensation reforms, as well as difficult and controversial prison realignment. And Brown thanked voters for approving tax increases that seem to actually promise budget stability.
Brown's address had some cautionary notes. The governor urged lawmakers to show restraint in spending as the state's economic outlook improves further, and to resist the urge to fund programs that likely would only be defunded in the next downturn. He also warned against adding new laws to the myriad that already exist. Instead, Brown said, the Legislature ought to focus on the big picture, focusing attention on big and long-delayed projects that the state desperately needs in order to get its economic engines humming: new water conveyance, high-speed rail, education reform, and a continued focus on climate change and the implementation of health care reform. Brown earned a standing ovation when he declared that he won't allow the state's students to be the primary financiers of the state's higher education system.
The speech, largely a restatement of Brown's previously established priorities, earned plaudits from Democrats and Republicans alike -- bipartisan agreement that is, in itself, a significant achievement. One of the few exceptions was Bakersfield Assemblywoman Shannon Grove, who found only negative things to say. She blamed the governor and unions for new taxes that she said would hurt small business and declared that only a better business climate will improve the state's outlook.
That's a narrow view. From May to November, the state had seven straight months of job growth. In fiscal year 2011-12, California led the nation in job growth, giving the state its largest one-year jump since 2000. It's true that challenges remain. The state has the nation's third highest unemployment rate, at 9.8 percent. But Grove's stick-in-the-mud insistence that only preferential treatment for business can save the state ignores reality.
Not all the reforms Brown has ushered in have been perfect or guarantee success over the long haul. Pension reform, to name one, didn't go far enough, and we lament that new taxes are being borne primarily by top earners, perpetuating a system that leaves state revenues vulnerable to market volatility. But there's no denying that the state's newfound fiscal stability is a good thing, for its residents and its businesses. So is paying down the state's wall of debt, investing in roads, securing our water supply, and improving the quality and efficiency of our education system.
The state stands on significantly more solid ground than in years past and Brown deserves credit for much of the improvement.