• Brown: Calif. comes back but challenged by drought
     | January 23,2014
    ap photo

    Gov. Jerry Brown displays a playing card with a chart showing how high deficits follow balanced budgets, during his annual State of the State speech Wednesday.

    SACRAMENTO, Calif. — 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.

    He urged conservation among the state’s 38 million residents and said water recycling, expanded storage and better management of groundwater supplies will be needed. The state’s budget reserves will be tested if the wildfire season explodes and communities run short of water and need emergency help.

    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.

    Brown, who has given more State of the State addresses than any other governor in California history, delivered a restrained speech that was largely without surprises.

    He touched on the state’s financial turnaround after years of budget deficits, and noted his continued efforts to reduce the state’s prison population and equalize public school funding.

    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. In emphasizing his plea for fiscal restraint, Brown provided a moment of levity when he held up a playing card. One side showed a bar graph of the state’s recurring budget deficits, while the other had an image of his dog, Sutter, with a message urging prudence. The cards, which were handed out to reporters covering the speech, carried various messages attributed to the Welsh corgi, including: “Save some biscuits for a rainy day.”

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