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Amid financial good news, Gov. Brown calls for 'fiscal discipline'

Modified: Friday, Jan 25th, 2013

In an upbeat state of the state address Thursday, Gov. Jerry Brown outlined his plans for the state, touching on jobs, health care, the state’s water supply, climate change and his high-speed rail plan.

He also touted his plan to rewire the way education is funded in California, most notably by giving more funding to schools with higher numbers of English learners and low-income students, and giving local budget control to districts.

Brown praised Californians and state lawmakers alike for approving a host of reforms, including billions in spending cuts, a prison realignment and changes to the pension system.

He also revisited Proposition 30, which voters approved in November. Brown led the charge for the proposition, which helps fund education by imposing a temporary sales tax and increases personal income taxes for wealthy Californians.

“The message this year is clear,” Brown said. “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. Against those who take pleasure, singing of our demise, California did the impossible.”

But in the midst of the celebration of a balanced budget, Brown also urged financial prudence and temperance in enacting new laws for the heavily Democratic legislature, a message that could be a portent of conflicts to come within Brown’s own party.

“Fiscal discipline is not the enemy of our good intentions but the basis for realizing them,” he said. “It is cruel to lead people on by expanding good programs, only to cut them back when the funding disappears. That is not progress; it is not even progressive. It is illusion. That stop and go, boom and bust, serves no one. We are not going back there.”

Perhaps most telling about Brown’s relationship with California lawmakers, Brown urged legislators to refrain from enacting hundreds of new laws every year that he said bogs down the state’s legal system.

“Constantly expanding the coercive power of government by adding each year so many minute prescriptions to our already detailed and turgid legal system overshadows other aspects of public service,” he said. “Individual creativity and direct leadership must also play a part. We do this, not by commanding thou shalt or thou shalt not through a new law but by tapping into the persuasive power that can inspire and organize people.”

In that spirit, Brown outlined his plan to return local control to school districts, rather than allow them to be controlled by a system awash in levels of bureaucracy.

“In California’s public schools, there are six million students, 300,000 teachers — all subject to tens of thousands of laws and regulations,” he said. “In addition to the teacher in the classroom, we have a principal in every school, a superintendent and governing board for each school district.”

Brown went on to say that the state superintendent and state board of education further complicate the matter, as do congressional programs such as No Child Left Behind. In addition, further control from the U.S. Department of Education affect classrooms throughout the country.

The result, Brown said, is a Byzantine system of rules that require students to regurgitate information.

“Distant authorities crack the whip, demanding quantitative measures and a stark, single number to encapsulate the precise achievement level of every child,” he said.

“...higher or more remote levels of government, like the state, should render assistance to local school districts, but always respect their primary jurisdiction and the dignity and freedom of teachers and students,” Brown said.

At a Jan. 10 budget press conference, Brown outlined a plan to base funding for schools based on the populations of low-income students and of English learners.

“This formula recognizes the fact that a child in a family making $20,000 a year or speaking a language different from English or living in a foster home requires more help,” he said Thursday. “Equal treatment for children in unequal situations is not justice.”

Brown’s plan will almost certainly become controversial, and at the very least be a cause for confusion as school districts begin to plan their budgets before the final state budget is approved in June.

Pajaro Valley Unified School District Chief Business Officer Brett McFadden had praise for Brown’s plans.

“This proposal is the most bold and ambitious plan to reform and change California’s school finance system that I’ve seen in my 25-year career,” McFadden said in a January interview.

Brown’s budget also calls for California to begin implementing President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, and at the address Thursday he called for a special session to begin the process of beginning the legislation by January 2014.

The governor said he wants to change the Enterprise Zone system, which provides tax breaks to businesses that hire people on unemployment, veterans and ex-offenders. He also wants to change the Jobs Hiring Credit, which gives companies financial incentives to hire full-time employees.

Neither system is working, Brown said.

“We also need to rethink and streamline our regulatory procedures, particularly the California Environmental Quality Act,” he said. “Our approach needs to be based more on consistent standards that provide greater certainty and cut needless delays.”

Brown said that financial uncertainty from the federal government could still hurt the state, particularly with coming changes to health care.

“The ultimate costs of expanding our health care system under the Affordable Care Act are unknown,” he said. “Ignoring such known unknowns would be folly, just as it would be to not pay down our wall of debt. That is how we plunged into a decade of deficits.”

Brown also touched on water issues, saying that demand by farmers throughout the state is draining the resources of the San Joaquin Delta, where one-sixth of the state’s water flows.

A natural disaster affecting the delta could mean the loss of at least $100 billion and 40,000 jobs, he said.

As a solution, Brown proposed the construction two water supply tunnels 30 miles long and 40 feet wide, a plan designed to improve the ecology of the Delta, with almost 100 square miles of habitat restoration.

“Yes, that is big but so is the problem,” Brown said. “The London Olympics lasted a short while and cost $14 billion, about the same cost as this project. But this project will serve California for hundreds of years.”

That plan has brought scorn from environmentalists, who claim the plan would damage habitats and displace farms.

Finally, Brown discussed his plan for a $68 billion high-speed rail in the state, which breaks ground this year, and made reference to China and Spain, both of which have successful rail systems.

“Electrified trains are part of the future,” he said.

Assemblymember Luis Alejo, D-Salinas, called Brown’s plans, “a good starting point.”

“We’ve had to make tough decisions these last few years to get to this point of a balanced budget without having to make drastic cuts,” Alejo said. “Although my district is still struggling with high unemployment and searching for viable economic development solutions, at least we can see the light at the end of the tunnel with new investments in K-12 education, higher education, and health care.” 

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