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GOLIS: Better days, but much work remains

Gov. Jerry Brown visits with his wife, Anne Gust Brown, and state legislators after delivering his State of the State address.

RICH PEDRONCELLI / Associated Press
Published: Sunday, January 27, 2013 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 27, 2013 at 8:27 a.m.

After five years of recession, your hometown economy is growing again. Celebrations can begin now — so long as we don't forget that the work is just beginning.

On Wednesday, we learned that post-recession Sonoma County is emerging as the leading job producer in the state. “Enormous progress has been made here,” UCLA economist Jerry Nickelsburg told a gathering of civic and business leaders.

A day later, Gov. Jerry Brown trumpeted statewide job growth and a state budget that is no longer held together by accounting gimmicks and wishful thinking.

In his annual State of the State address, Brown declared, “California has once again confounded our critics. We have wrought in just two years a solid and enduring budget. And, by God, we will persevere and keep it that way for years to come.”

Yet Brown also felt obliged to caution lawmakers on the importance of fiscal responsibility.

“This means living within our means and not spending what we don't have,” he said. “Fiscal discipline is not the enemy of our good intentions but the basis for realizing them. It's cruel to lead people on by expanding good programs, only to cut them when the funding disappears.”

In return for voters agreeing to the new taxes contained in Proposition 30 on last November's ballot, Brown promised that the state would live within it means.

Here, of course, is the dilemma he and all Californians face:

We want to pursue the future with enthusiasm, but we worry about our political leadership's capacity to keep spending in line with revenues. It wasn't so long ago that the state was cranking out budget deficits even when revenues were at an all-time high.

Brown signaled that he had a different model in mind. He urged the Legislature to honor the biblical instruction “to pay down our debts and store up reserves against the leaner times that will surely follow.”

Brown remains the one state politician who has demonstrated the patience necessary to unload the baggage of the recent past, while also preparing for the demographic and technological changes that will define the future.

By now, state and local leaders know the big issues that confront them:

Jobs and economic transition. Board of Supervisors Chairman David Rabbitt noted that Sonoma County has recovered only 17,000 of the 25,000 jobs lost since 2008. In the transition to a global economy, it will be necessary to identify where job growth is occurring and what those changes mean for the local economy.

Demographics. Economic Development Director Ben Stone warned that Sonoma County faces a “silver tsunami” of retirements. In many industries, more than 20 percent of the workforce expects to retire over the next decade. Educating and recruiting the people who will fill those jobs will be essential.

Education. A county and a state concerned about jobs and the rapid rate of baby boomer retirements need an educated workforce. And yet more kids are born without the advantages often associated with success in schools. Three million students don't speak English at home, Brown noted, and two million live in poverty.

“If we fail at this,” the governor said, “we will sow growing social chaos and inequality that no law can rectify.”

“Equal treatment for children in unequal situations is not justice,” he added.

Infrastructure. Even when times were good, local and state governments neglected the public facilities necessary to sustain jobs and the economy — highways and streets, rail and transit, water works. Now they are challenged to modernize them without breaking the bank.

Governance. Sounding unlike Democrats of recent times, Brown urged lawmakers to find ways to reduce the bureaucratic burden of government, including the red tape of environmental laws and endless state mandates on local school districts.

He joked about the famously bloated volumes of law governing public schools: “Lay the Ten Commandments next to the California Education Code and you will see how far we have diverged in approach and in content from that which formed the basis of our legal system.”

Public pensions. All sides understand that investment markets cannot generate the returns necessary to sustain pension commitments made a decade ago. Finding sustainable models won't be easy, but there is no use in pretending it isn't necessary.

Climate change. Brown made a compelling case that a state with a long coastline and a reliance on mountain snowpacks for water should have a special interest in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Of course, a comprehensive energy policy can also create jobs, reduce air pollution and save money.

Brown noted that California consumers have saved $65 billion in electric bills since a governor 30 years ago championed energy conservation. Yes, he was talking about himself.

“California is back, its budget is balanced and we are on the move. Let's go out and get it done,” Brown concluded.

There was a lot to like about this speech. Here was a grown-up speaking — someone who understands that better days are coming if California embraces innovation and heeds the hard lessons of the past decade.

With common sense, patience and newfound humility, Californians can do this.

Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at golispd@gmail.com.

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