Gov. Jerry Brown is coming off a year of political success in which he shepherded a voter-approved tax increase, successfully pushed for changes to the public pension system and made headway on two ambitious public works projects.
Yet Brown is unlikely to focus on the past in the State of the State address he will deliver Thursday, his third since reclaiming the governor's office. Instead, the Democratic governor is expected to promote legacy-making initiatives, including a massive tunnel system for water in the Central Valley and plans to break ground this year on what would be the nation's first high-speed rail line. Revamping California's school finance system also is high on his priority list.
The state budget Brown laid out earlier this month provided a partial outline of his vision for reforming California's education system. He followed it up with visits to the board meetings of the University of California and California State University systems, where he urged officials to embrace more creative approaches, including online courses, and to hold the line on spending to prevent further tuition increases.
Brown's attempt to overhaul California's school funding system could complement his efforts to reduce state government bureaucracy by eliminating dozens of specific funding streams in favor of greater local decision-making.
"I anticipate it will be upbeat and he'll be appropriately aggressive about tackling a lot of our challenges," Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, told reporters in his Capitol office last week. "Again, we have a little bit more headroom this year to be able to really focus on a lot of other policy aside from, 'What are we going to cut from a budget?' Thank God for that."
Brown and other lawmakers are free to move beyond the budget and focus on policy issues after persuading voters in November to pass his tax initiative, Proposition 30, which raised the state sales tax by a quarter-cent for four years and income taxes on the wealthy for seven years, is expected to generate an estimated $6 billion a year. Brown says if his budget proposal is adopted, California's deficit will be eliminated, although significant debt remains.
Republican lawmakers said Democrats should devote even more money to education. Brown has proposed restoring some funding to schools while avoiding further cuts to already hard hit social service programs. In addition to streamlining education spending, he also is seeking to divert more money to poor students and those who are learning English.
The Brown administration also is awaiting the results of an environmental impact report due this spring on his proposal to build a massive, 35-mile twin-tunnel system to carry water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta south to farms and cities.
It includes plans for more than 100,000 acres of flood plain and tidal marsh habitat restoration. The entire project would cost $23 billion, with the $14 billion construction cost coming from water users who also would pay for its maintenance. Brown has also indicated that he wants lawmakers to overhaul the California Environmental Quality Act, a complex set of environmental regulations that has been blamed for slowing development and economic growth because of the logistical hoops businesses must jump through to comply.
Fewer regulations could ease work on some of the governor's other major goals, including the water plan and high-speed rail.