Brown defends California bullet train in State of the State

In this file photo, California Gov. Jerry Brown delivers his annual State of the State address to a joint session of the California Legislature, Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2017, in Sacramento, Calif.
In this file photo, California Gov. Jerry Brown delivers his annual State of the State address to a joint session of the California Legislature, Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2017, in Sacramento, Calif.
Rich Pedroncelli/AP

Gov. Jerry Brown declared "California is prospering" on Thursday as he kicked off his final State of the State address as leader of the nation's most populous state.

"While it faces its share of difficulties, we should never forget the bounty and endless opportunities bestowed upon this special place," he said.

It's the 16th such address for the 79-year-old Brown, who served two terms as governor starting in 1975 and returned for two more in 2011. Brown, the son of former Gov. Pat Brown, is termed out of office after the November election.

Brown has frequently used his annual address to the Legislature to highlight California as the nation's beacon of opportunity and hope but also warn of its past economic woes and the financial pitfalls that may loom ahead. He largely stayed away from financial doom and gloom but warned that California and the world "are at immediate and genuine risk" from threats such as climate change and war.

Brown defended two much-scrutinized infrastructure projects: The bullet train from Los Angeles to San Francisco and his plan to re-route water from northern to southern California through one or two massive tunnels. Both projects have faced criticism, and costs of the train recently jumped by nearly $3 billion.

"I make no bones about it. I like trains and I like high-speed trains even better," Brown said. "Difficulties challenge us but they can't discourage us or stop us."

Brown also touched on the state's devastating fire season last fall, which destroyed thousands of homes up and down the state. In his speech, Brown called for a task force of scientists and forest management experts to find ways to reduce the wildfire threat to California.

Brown reflected on improvements to California's economy since he entered office in 2011, when the state faced a $27 billion budget deficit and an unemployment rate of 12 percent. Things have since turned around, with Brown projecting a $6 billion surplus in this budget.

He's consistently warned that California ought to save for future uncertainty rather than spend.

"What's out there is darkness, uncertainty, decline and recession, so good luck, baby," he declared at his budget press conference in early January.

Brown largely avoided talk of President Donald Trump and Washington during his more than 30-minute address, although he highlighted the president's decision to withdraw the United States from international climate commitments. In 2017, Brown emerged as a de-facto U.S. leader on climate policy, traveling to China and Germany and leading a coalition of states to uphold the nation's carbon reduction goals.

As he looked ahead to his final year in office, Brown told the Legislature "there is much more to do."

"We too will persist against storms and turmoil, obstacles great and small," he said. "The spirit of democracy never dies."

— AP reporter Kathleen Ronayne

Legislators respond

Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Lakewood) called Brown's speech frank, pragmatic and optimistic, saying the governor hit on all the right topics.

"Assembly Democrats have had an outstanding partnership with Governor Brown. We'll be working hard with him in the coming year to make sure that partnership continues to pay dividends to the people of California," he said in a statement shortly after the governor's address.

Democratic Assemblymember Monique Limón of Santa Barbara praised the governor's record of service on the environment, technology and job growth.

"In the wake of a terrible recession, California has rebuilt - a healthy job growth and a flourishing of entrepreneurial pursuits. It is important that with this growth, we ensure that the rising tide raises all of the boats in our communities," she said in a statement.

Referring to Santa Barbara County's recovery from the disastrous Thomas Fire and subsequent mud flows, Limón credited the hard work of first responders, Caltrans, the California Highway Patrol, nonprofit aid groups, the governor and the Legislature.

Republican lawmakers were less positive. Senator Jeff Stone of Riverside County suggested the governor painted too rosy a picture of California.

In his own statement, Stone insisted the state's prosperity has come in spite of increased taxes and bigger government rather than because of them. He described the state's economy as "pent up" and "waiting to be unleashed," suggesting it would be much stronger if businesses were granted relief from state taxes, regulations and frivolous lawsuits.

"As always, the Governor gave a great speech," Stone said. "It was a nice coat of paint trying to cover up the dry rot that has been destroying the foundation of California's fiscal house."

Senate GOP Leader Patricia Bates of Laguna Niguel said Brown was only telling one side of the story.

"While parts of California are prospering, the sad truth is that the state has the nation's highest poverty rate when accounting for cost-of-living," Bates said in a statement. "Our state has become increasingly unaffordable for many Californians."

While Brown continues to tout the high-speed rail project even amid ballooning costs, voter-approved initiatives on new water storage and modernizing schools remain largely unfulfilled, she said.

Bates also criticized the governor for failing to elaborate how he would pay for unfunded pension liabilities for public employees and retirees.

"The failure to significantly address the pension issue means the next governor will have to tackle it. We have a lot of priorities in Sacramento that deserve the full attention of state officials. Californians deserve better," Bates said.

This story has been updated.