State of the State: California resurgence facing challenges

State of the State: California resurgence facing challenges »Play Video
Gov. Jerry Brown receives applause from lawmakers as he walks to podium of the Assembly chambers to deliver his State of the State address at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2014. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, pool)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Gov. Jerry Brown on Wednesday delivered a dual message in his annual address to the Legislature — that a California resurgence is well underway but is threatened by economic and environmental uncertainties.

Chief among those uncertainties is the severe drought that is gripping the nation's most populous state and already is forcing water cutbacks among many farms and cities.

In the State of the State address, Brown said it was not clear what role heat-trapping gases have played in three years of dry weather, but he said the excessively dry conditions throughout California should serve "as a stark warning of things to come."

"This means more droughts and more extreme weather events, and, in California, more forest fires and less snow pack," he said, a week after declaring an official drought.

Brown has delivered more State of the State addresses than any other governor in California history. His latest version was workmanlike and without surprises.

It touched on the state's turnaround from years of budget deficits to projections of surpluses, and noted his continued efforts to equalize public school funding and reduce the state's prison population.

Under the state's so-called "prison realignment," more inmates are now in county jail systems, and Brown used Wednesday's message to praise the system in Kern County.

"Last week, I visited the Lerdo Jail just north of Bakersfield and sat in on some classes," the governor said. "It was moving to hear the men's stories and the struggles they encounter. It was also inspiring to see the enthusiasm of Sheriff Donny Youngblood and his efforts under realignment."

Youngblood happens to be in Washington, D.C. this week, and in a phone call to Eyewitness News the sheriff said he appreciates the governor's comments, and said it's the staff doing the programs and treatment that deserve the credit.

"I'm glad he likes the programs," Sheriff Youngblood added. "A lot of people like them."

Brown said both county jails and the state prisons are "pioneering" new programs and treatment.

He also noted that a million new jobs have been created since 2010 and that the state faces budget surpluses in the billions of dollars for the foreseeable future, thanks to a surging economy and tax increases approved by voters in 2012.

"What a comeback it is," he said as he opened his address.

Yet he also said California continues to face financial challenges that could imperil its future, including $100 billion in pension liabilities for state workers, teachers and judges, tens of billions more to cover retiree health care and $65 billion for upkeep of roads and other public works.

Brown, 75, only briefly mentioned the $68 billion high-speed rail project that is a priority of his but has lost much of its public support.

He faces increasing scrutiny for continuing to push the bullet train project. The latest entrant into the 2014 governor's race, Republican Neel Kashkari, called it a symbol of misplaced priorities in Sacramento.

The governor has not yet declared whether he will seek re-election, although he is widely expected to do so and has collected nearly $17 million for a campaign. It would be his last term as governor after serving from 1975 to 1983 then returning to the office in 2011.

Brown's address came less than two weeks after he delivered his state budget proposal for the fiscal year that starts in July, outlining a vision for the state that embraces frugality even as tax revenue soars to a record level.

The $106.8 billion general fund he proposed is nearly 9 percent more than spending in the current fiscal year. That includes $45.2 billion for K-12 schools, a year-over-year increase of nearly $4 billion.

Brown's vision for how that education money is to be spent, laid out in last year's State of the State address, is starting to take effect.

Last week, the state Board of Education approved sweeping new rules that direct school districts to funnel billions of dollars of new revenue toward schools that serve high numbers of students from low-income families, who are English-learners or are in foster care. The additional money is generated partly by temporary increases in sales and income taxes that Brown persuaded voters to approve in 2012.

He is likely to spend much of the first half of the year in arguments over spending with Democratic lawmakers, many of whom want more money for their own priorities. After years of cutbacks to favorite programs, many are anxious to restore funding for some existing programs and launch new ones.

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, for example, wants to add transitional kindergarten for all 4-year-olds, an initiative that would require hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

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KBAK/KBFX Eyewitness News reporter Carol Ferguson contributed to this report.