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UPDATE: Brown: Calif. comes back but challenged by drought

Posted: January 22, 2014 9:23 a.m.
Updated: January 22, 2014 3:25 p.m.

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 on Wednesday.

 

Gov. Jerry Brown on Wednesday delivered dual messages in his annual address to the Legislature: California’s resurgence is well underway but is threatened by economic and environmental uncertainties.

Chief among those uncertainties is that the severe drought gripping the nation’s most populous state and already forcing water cutbacks among farms and cities eventually could exact a financial toll on the state’s improving finances.

In the State of the State address, Brown said it was not clear what role heat-trapping gases have played in creating three years of dry weather, but he said the excessively dry conditions 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.

Some relief could come from an $11.1 billion water bond scheduled to go before voters in November, but the measure is filled with problems, including the price tag. Lawmakers have delayed it twice and are considering major changes, including lowering the price.

The current version has been criticized for including too many unessential, special interest projects and for not guaranteeing money for building dams to create new reservoirs.

The drought also complicates one of Brown’s top public works priorities, a $25 billion plan to build two 30-mile tunnels to ship water from Northern California to Central Valley farms and Southern California cities.

The lack of rain and snow, as well as Brown’s own statement on Wednesday that California is likely to see diminished Sierra snow packs in the future, have raised questions about whether it’s smart to build a project that is designed to send even more water south.

“We are in the worst drought that we’ve had in the last 100 years and that should be our top priority,” said state Sen. Steve Knight, R-Palmdale, in a video statement. “So I want him to be more focused on the drought, more focused on water.”

Brown touted the one million new jobs that have been created in California since 2010 and said the state faces budget surpluses in the billions of dollars for the foreseeable future, thanks to a rebounding economy and tax increases approved by voters in 2012.

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 for retiree health care and $65 billion to maintain roads and other public works.

Brown’s budget starts paying down some of the state’s debt, allotting $11 billion to that purpose, and sets aside $1.6 billion in a rainy day fund.

Assemblyman Scott Wilk, R-Santa Clarita, said in a statement that he applauds Brown’s commitment to pay down debt, but that the state should invest more in its rainy day fund.

“Furthermore, Governor Brown needs to quit touting the ‘California comeback,’ the state’s revenue surge is due to a stellar year in the stock market and the $6 billion in new, higher, temporary taxes from Prop 30,” Wilk said. “This means the increase in revenue is fleeting and Sacramento needs to invest more ‘surplus’ dollars into the rainy day fund in order to stabilize funding when the next economic downturn occurs.”

Assemblyman Steve Fox, D-Palmdale, said Brown’s address showed an emphasis on long-term planning.

“He also cautioned us that good jobs and a good future requires constant vigilance and that’s very important,” said Fox in a video statement. “We don’t balance today’s good budget on our grandchildren’s backs.”

Many Republican lawmakers have embraced Brown’s message of frugality while questioning whether his fellow Democrats will go along after years of cutbacks to programs and services they favor.

“Governor Brown is a good cheerleader for California,” said George Runner, a member of the state Board of Equalization. “The question is, will he stay strong when faced with a liberal Legislature that wants to increase government programs, taxes and regulations.”

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