While most other states are limiting expectations as they try to recover from the recession, Gov. Jerry Brown is dreaming of a bright future for his native California.
Even as he prepares for another year of budget cuts, Brown is bucking national conventional wisdom by proposing spending on the types of long-term projects most other governors and state legislatures are shunning.
The 73-year-old Democrat, in his second stint in the governor's office, has said he intends to plan for California's future even as the state tries to right its economy and limit spending on basic programs such as health care for the needy, social services and higher education.
The budget proposal for the 2012-13 fiscal year that he released on Thursday commits seed money to a number of expensive projects that he hopes will guide California in the decades to come. The amounts are relatively small but provide down payments for initiatives he said are essential to keeping California desirable.
The allocations underscore Brown's support for a $98 billion high-speed rail line that has been heavily criticized for its ballooning price tag and an array of alternative energy projects he hopes will lead to a cleaner environment and so-called "green" jobs.
Despite the worst economy in modern times, the Democrat once mocked as "Governor Moonbeam" for proposing communication satellites in space is asking state lawmakers to support "bold moves" that live up to California's history of innovation. Critics question whether California can afford the projects in the years ahead.
"This is a strong, confident investment in the future of California," Brown said in releasing his budget plan. "There are a few people, some of them who are hankering after life in Texas, who call California a failed state. But we are the innovative state. We're the state of Apple computer, of Facebook, of Hewlett-Packard, Hollywood, stem cell research, international trade, diversity. This is a state that's dynamic, it's creative, and it's prosperous."
Brown's approach is markedly different than that taken in most other states in the wake of the Great Recession. Other governors and state legislative leaders have taken the opposite view, arguing that governments at all levels must live within their current means.
Forty-eight states have cut programs and services since late 2007. That includes California, which has made deep cuts to social services and education. Brown also has sought to reduce bureaucracy or transfer to local governments the types of programs that he believes should not be overseen by the state, but he also has said he wants to empower government's core functions, including offering help to those who need it most.
Brown's 2012-13 spending plan includes $4.2 billion in cuts to the state's welfare-to-work program, Medi-Cal and child care services. Yet he also is proposing spending about $1 billion in expected revenue from California's new "cap-and-trade" program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. He wants that money to go toward clean energy research, natural resource protection and infrastructure projects related to alternative energy.
He also budgeted $15.9 million for the agency overseeing the high-speed rail project, signaling his continued support for it even in the face of several reports that question the project's planning and costs. The rail line is one of the most ambitious infrastructure projects proposed in any state, with plans to link the San Francisco Bay area, the Central Valley and Southern California with trains running up to 220 mph.
The current cost estimate is more than double the original, and funding for most of the project has not been identified.
Brown also wants to devote $25 million and create 135 new jobs as part of a habitat conservation and water delivery system in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. That comes amid the ongoing debate over whether California should build a massive canal or tunnel to move Sacramento River water to farms and cities to the south.
During his campaign for governor, Brown endorsed building a canal or tunnel around the delta, but his administration has not proposed building one so far. A proposal for a so-called peripheral canal that Brown supported was the subject of a bitter ballot fight when he was governor in the 1980s.
The sums are small in scope amid a total proposed general fund budget of $92.5 billion, but they reflect the governor's attitude that California can't stop planning for the future just because times are tough right now.
Investments in the environment are relatively cheap and one of the few policy goals that are not blocked by current political and economic realities, said Thad Kousser, an assistant professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego.
He said Brown is taking a risk by supporting high-speed rail but noted that funding for the initial phase of construction comes from sources outside the state budget.
"This is Jerry Brown swimming up the political stream to fulfill his father's vision of California, of investing in infrastructure," Kousser said. "It doesn't look easy in the short term, and many of us will be long gone before it comes to fruition."
Brown's father, Pat Brown, was governor from the late 1950s to the mid-1960s and is credited with developing California's extensive water system and a higher education system that until recent years was a model for its combination of accessibility, affordability and high quality.
If the rail project eventually succeeds, it could provide Brown a lasting legacy of his own. His first tenure as governor, from 1975 to 1983, also was marked by cutbacks to state government and a voter revolt against escalating residential property taxes. Brown was asked this week whether he has had second thoughts about the rail project after the latest critical report.
"You know, I'm of the view that this is the time for big ideas, not shrinking back and looking for a hole to climb into," he told reporters. "California is a big state. America can have a high-speed rail system like every other country — every other major country — and I think we've got to move forward."
Republicans and some Democrats have called for scrapping the project. Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, said Brown's budget reflects his "addiction to overspending."
"It is irresponsible to assume that billions of dollars in new tax revenue will suddenly appear, while they move full-speed ahead on high speed rail, a billion-dollar cap and tax scheme, and numerous unsustainable entitlement programs," he said in a statement.
The environmental projects eligible for some of the $1 billion look to the future: solar and wind farms, as well as programs to charging stations for electric vehicles. Such projects will end up boosting the economy as well as protecting the environment, said Stanley Young, a spokesman for the California Air Resources Board, which would oversee the spending.
Jan Mazurek, director of strategy and operations at the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University, said Brown also has displayed political courage by pushing ahead with the cap-and-trade plan, which was part of a bill signed by his predecessor, Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
The plan puts a price on greenhouse gas emissions and offers financial incentives for companies to reduce pollution.
"Other states may be shortsighted toward environmental budget cuts, but Governor Brown understands a cap can close the deficit and that it can grow clean energy companies. A growing economy closes budget deficits," Mazurek said.
Brown served as state attorney general before he was elected governor for the second time in 2010. During that tenure, he supported enacting the state's greenhouse gas law and has repeatedly talked about the need to plan for the predicted effects of climate change.
During a conference on extreme climate risks he hosted last month in San Francisco, Brown urged people to "wake up" to the extreme weather patterns caused by climate change. He said there already was evidence that warming weather is causing faster snowmelts from the Sierra Nevada, putting stress on the state's aging levee system and threatening agriculture in the Central Valley.
He said the greatest obstacle California faces is a "deep sense of complacency" that things will work themselves out.
Dearen reported from San Francisco.