When Jerry Brown returned to the California governor’s office in 2011—nearly 30 years after he finished his first two terms in 1983—he inherited a $27 billion budget deficit and a state mocked by critics.
“The Economist of London pronounced us ‘The Ungovernable State,’” Brown was quick to remind the crowd in the Assembly chambers on Thursday, seven years after resuming the state’s leadership. “And the Business Insider simply said, ‘California is Doomed.’”
Now, California boasts a multibillion-dollar surplus. Its economy is strong. And Brown touted a list of bipartisan accomplishments: a pension overhaul, a new budget reserve, and an extension of the state’s cap-and-trade program to combat climate change.
“Their passage demonstrates that some American governments can actually get things done even in the face of deepening partisan division,” he said, taking a shot at Congress.
California’s longest-serving governor, a three-time Democratic presidential candidate, and a one-of-a-kind American politician gave his final State of the State address on Thursday. He told lawmakers in Sacramento that the state is prospering and laid out a path to continue this progress—but he also issued dire warnings on a global scale.
As he looked ahead to his sixteenth and final year at the state Capitol, Brown called for fresh looks at California’s criminal justice system, which has ballooned over the last half-century, and how the state manages its forests, to reduce the risk of wildfires.
The governor also made the case for the transportation funding law he signed last year, which voters will likely decide the fate of in November.
“Fighting a gas tax may appear to be good politics, but it isn’t. I will do everything in my power to defeat any repeal effort that may make it to the ballot. You can count on that!” Brown said, drawing applause from Democrats while Republicans sat on their hands.
He also continued his unflagging support of two signature infrastructure projects: the Delta tunnels and high-speed rail.
“Yes, there are critics, there are lawsuits and there are countless obstacles,” he said. “But California was built on dreams and perseverance and the bolder path is still our way forward.”
But even many Democrats struggle with these projects’ costs. And Republicans blame the governor and his party for California’s skyrocketing cost of housing and other vital expenses.
Assembly GOP Leader Brian Dahle, who represents rural northeastern California, talked about the challenges facing his neighbor, a single mother of four:
“Her cost of living is going up,” he said after the speech. “They just passed a gas tax last year; that drives up her transportation costs. Energy costs are going up. And she has to decide whether she’s going to put food on the table, turn the heat up.”
Dahle said small businesses like his are “dying of a thousand cuts.”
This was not a speech that railed against President Trump or sought to fire up “the resistance.” Brown did not mention Trump by name, though he acknowledged the president for approving federal funds to fight wildfires.
And despite threats from the Trump administration to arrest state and local politicians who defy federal immigration laws, the governor—who just months ago signed California’s “sanctuary state” law—skipped the subject entirely.
That didn’t trouble legislative Democrats like Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon:
“What a lot of us have come to understand,” Rendon said afterward, “is that the best way we can fight against Donald Trump—the best way we can fight against everything that’s happening in Washington, D.C.—is to be successful.”
Instead of dwelling on the president, Brown went global, noting that the “Doomsday Clock” had just moved its hand to two minutes to midnight — as close as it’s been since the height of the Cold War.
“Our world, our way of life, our system of governance—all are at immediate and genuine risk,” the governor said. “Endless new weapons systems, growing antagonism among nations, the poison in our politics, climate change—all of this calls out for courage, for imagination and for generous dialogue.”
Brown is not the most sentimental of politicians. But the governor, who turns 80 in April, seemed to linger in the moment, knowing his time in public office will end in less than a year.
As he wrapped up to a standing ovation, Brown stepped back to the microphone to offer a window into his state of mind.
“Keep going! I’m in no hurry,” he said over the applause. “Nowhere to go!”
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