Dan Walters: If Jerry Brown wants a legacy, he'll have to work for it

01/25/2013 12:00 AM

02/26/2013 8:19 PM

Gov. Jerry Brown uttered more than 3,000 words in just under 25 minutes Thursday, telling the Legislature – and 38 million other Californians – that the state is in good shape, getting better every day and can look forward to a bright future.

"Two years ago," Brown concluded his State of the State speech, "they were writing our obituary. Well, it didn't happen. California is back, its budget is balanced, and we are on the move. Let's go out and get it done."

And what would "it" be?

The politician who once spoke disparagingly of "multipoint plans" offered a lengthy agenda Thursday, including changing school finance, bringing the poor into Obamacare, building water tunnels under the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, starting a bullet train line, overhauling environmental laws and reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

There was nothing new, at least for Brown, in any of that. In fact, his advocacies of high-speed rail and a Delta water bypass go back to his first governorship.

But he managed to make it at least mildly entertaining with references to the Old Testament, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, California's colonial history, Oliver Wendell Holmes, William Butler Yeats, Renaissance essayist Michel de Montaigne and the children's book "The Little Engine That Could."

Even though Brown claims to be uninterested in legacy and just wants to govern effectively, the speech appeared to be Brown's bid for a more prominent place in California's history books – something to replace the mocking accounts of his erratic first governorship, something more like the accolades given his late father, two-term Gov. Pat Brown.

Building tunnels to carry Sacramento River water under the Delta to the California Aqueduct would be a direct link to Brown's father, whose proudest achievement was the California Water Project, because it would close the final major gap in that plan.

But it, like other items on Brown's agenda, faces some tough political sledding among fellow Democrats.

Environmental groups have become major political forces, especially within the Democratic Party. While they endorse Brown's bullet- train plans and greenhouse gas reduction, they are leery about the Delta tunnels and Brown's call for streamlining the California Environmental Quality Act.

Similarly, the very powerful California Teachers Association is leery about Brown's plans to overhaul education finance and give local school boards more authority to spend state school money. Advocates for the poor, who want relief from recent "safety net" spending cuts, are leery about his calls for keeping a lid on the budget and using new revenue to pay down debt and "shore up reserves against the leaner times that will surely come."

If Brown wants a legacy, therefore, he will have to work for it.

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