Editorial: Brown preaches prudence, with some exceptions

January 25, 2013 

Gov. Jerry Brown, operating without a teleprompter, delivered an upbeat State of the State speech filled with ambitious concepts and minimalist ideals.

He provided no soaring oratory and few fancy turns of phrase on Thursday.

But the Democratic governor gave the audience of legislators, elected officials and any Californians who tuned in at 9 a.m. plenty of practical advice, much of it the sort that Republicans and chambers of commerce could embrace. He urged "living within our means" and "not spending what we don't have."

"Constantly expanding the coercive power of government by adding each year so many minute prescriptions to our already detailed and turgid legal system overshadows other aspects of public service. Individual creativity and direct leadership must also play a part," he said in a line libertarians would love.

And he delivered biblical references like this: "Lay the 10 Commandments next to the California Education Code and you will see how far we have diverged in approach and content from that which forms the basis of our legal system."

"We seem to think that education is a thing, like a vaccine, that can be designed from afar and simply injected into our children," he said, then quoted from the great Irish poet Yeats: "Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire."

Although it may seem incongruous, Brown appears to embracing a minimalist approach to state government, with the exception of some extraordinarily ambitious, big-ticket projects.

He wants a less intrusive California Environmental Quality Act and fewer mandates on student testing. But he also wants to build high-speed rail, construct new water tunnels through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, implement the federal Affordable Care Act and vastly expand use of renewable energy.

In the first half of his third term, Brown made good on his campaign pledge of getting the state's fiscal house in order. The budget is as sound as it has been since the mid-1990s, with the help of cuts and a $6 billion-a-year tax increase approved by voters in November.

However, the state economy, though rebounding, lags much of the nation. This year and next, perhaps he will shift his focus somewhat by doing what a governor can do to help the state out of its economic doldrums.

In a sense, Brown gave a jobs speech. Large public works projects employ engineers and laborers. He urged an overhaul of enterprise zones to spur hiring, and proclaimed a commitment to higher education without tuition increases. His agenda included few new initiatives, though he slipped in a few lines about overhauling transportation spending.

After the speech, he announced a trade mission to China.

More than other recent governors, Brown is a creature of California and is steeped in its history and lore, describing it as "the most diverse, creative and longest-standing mass migration in the history of the world."

Grammar-school students and new Californians would do well to read sections of this and other Brown speeches to grasp the Golden State's place in the world. There is plenty for a Californian to be proud of, not the least of which is the state's diversity.

Like all State of the State speeches, Brown provided an outline of his agenda. There will be plenty to pick at as details emerge, particularly on his plans for the Delta tunnels and for overhauling school and transportation funding. But with the economy ticking upward and the budget in the black, the governor had every right to reflect a sense of optimism.

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