Newsom has no problem going bigger than Brown

Gov. Gavin Newsom delivers his first state of the state address to a joint session of the legislature on Tuesday.
Gov. Gavin Newsom delivers his first state of the state address to a joint session of the legislature on Tuesday. AP

When Gavin Newsom was running for governor, he adopted “courage for a change” as his slogan.

It could be interpreted two ways: that he wanted to California’s direction, or that he was disparaging outgoing Gov. Jerry Brown’s reluctance to confront the state’s pithiest issues.

Newsom embraced both versions Tuesday in his first State of the State address, a long and detailed laundry list of the state’s ills and how he intends to deal with them that directly and indirectly rebuffed Brown. Most starkly, Newsom downgraded two of his predecessor’s pet projects – the twin tunnels to carry water beneath the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and a statewide bullet train system.

He rejected the Cal WaterFix, instead offering support for one tunnel while seeking compromise among California’s perpetually warring water factions. However, shrinking the project would require starting over on many years of planning twin tunnels, giving opponents of any diversions new opportunities to kill it. It’s questionable whether lowering the project’s capacity would make it pencil out for its backers, principally Southern California’s Metropolitan Water District.

Newsom also hit the pause button for compelling farmers in the Northern San Joaquin Valley to cede more water by calling for compromise agreements and removing the chairwoman of the State Water Resources Control Board, whose water diversion plans angered farmers.

The bullet train project fared even worse in Newsom’s declaration that “as currently planned would cost too much and take too long.”

Casting aside Brown’s obvious love for a statewide system linking Sacramento and San Francisco to Los Angeles and San Diego, Newsom called for completing just the 100-mile-long initial San Joaquin Valley segment, from Merced to Bakersfield.

However, electrifying the track now under construction and buying high-speed trains to run on it would be an enormously expensive for such short service. More likely, the stretch of track, when completed, will be folded into the region’s existing Amtrak service.

Newsom’s declarations on the tunnels and the bullet train were the biggest news in his speech, most of which was devoted to issues he had raised in the campaign, his inaugural address and his first budget.

He hit all the big bullet points, from the housing crisis to the increasing threat of wildfires and the bankruptcy of Pacific Gas & Electric, and pronounced that all could be solved by collaboration and new thinking. Of course, he took the obligatory potshots that any governor of a deep blue state is expected to take at President Donald Trump, particularly on Trump’s insistence on building a wall along the Mexican border.

“The border ‘emergency’ is a manufactured crisis,” Newsom declared – quite accurately. “And California will not be part of this political theater.”

A day earlier, he had announced he would withdraw most of the National Guard troops that Brown, albeit reluctantly, had committed to guarding the border.

All in all, Newsom set an ambitious agenda for his governorship, the sort of multi-point plan that Brown had often denigrated. And in doing so, the new governor set a high mark for his political future.

Achieving all he seeks would propel him into White House contention sometime after 2020. Failing, for whatever reason, could make him a footnote in California’s political history.

Dan Walters writes on matters of statewide significance for CALmatters, a public interest journalism organization. Email: dan@calmatters.org.