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January 21, 2014
Viewpoints: Time to swap out drab State of State tradition

State_of_the_State_2013.JPG(Jan. 21 - By Bill Whalen, Special to The Bee)

After a war on poverty, a war on women, a war on coal, a war on drugs and even, some Ray Conniff conservatives would have you believe, a war on Christmas, we turn to California and Jerry Brown's war on political hacks, flacks and over-planners.

How else to explain this morning's State of the State address, which per usual in post-Arnold Sacramento should be as dishwater drab as it is Brown - California's governor hurriedly reading a text he mostly pulled together himself, which he didn't bother to load into a teleprompter, which he didn't do much with in the way of premarketing and preselling, and which he has hidden from the television-viewing free world by going live midmorning as opposed to the more newsworthy evening drive time.

If you make your living writing such speeches or peddling make-work advice to politicians, it's your worst nightmare: a do-it-himself incumbent who doesn't care to be told where to go, what shirt to wear or which Kardashian to reference. Then again, Brown has little in the way of competition should he seek a fourth and final term as California's governor this fall, so what's the use of quibbling?

Assuming you have a chance to read this before the governor reads his missive, here are two ways to ponder the State of the State address.

Question one: Is this even necessary? Assuming he doesn't shock the world by announcing he won't seek re-election, one can pretty much guess what's on tap this morning under the Capitol dome: Brown praising the economic recovery and surplus revenue, warning about the perils of going on a spending jag (which came back to haunt Gray Davis, California's last Democratic governor), and the need to forge ahead on education reform, water policy and high-speed rail. In other words, what you've already read the past couple of weeks.

All of which makes for a good argument for scrapping this particular tradition and replacing it with something more practical - not to mention more entertaining.

As this is a speech that has little in the way of new and is directed more toward the state Legislature than it is the general populace, why not trade in the annual speech for more frequent in-session "question times" - as is done in Great Britain, a chance for members of Parliament to directly engage with government ministers, including the prime minister. Let Gov. Brown and Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg have at it on high-speed rail vs. expanding preschool. Or, heaven forbid, let a back-benching Republican ask a question or two.

Question two: Will Brown's remarks reflect Californians' issue priorities? A Hoover Institution Golden State Poll released today asked 1,000 Californians to rank their concerns. The top three choices: growing the economy, strengthening the job market, balancing the state's books (surprisingly, that polled better than improving schools).

The bottom-three priorities: global warming, strengthening gun laws and - regrettably for Brown - high-speed rail, which finished dead last with all of 10 percent vs. 71percent for growing the economy. It underscores the political risk involved in doubling-down on an ambitious rail project fraught with shaky assumptions; the concept may be futuristic but the public's loss of confidence may have already left the station.

There's one other set of numbers from the Hoover survey that sums up the unique existence that is the second Brown governorship. Only 26 percent of the Golden State Poll's respondents said the governor should be re-elected; 46 percent said someone else should have the job. The good news for Brown: 30 percent of the survey's respondents aren't sure yet who - and that's about 29 percentage points more than the combined name recognition of Assemblyman Tim Donnelly and former Bush Treasury aide Neel Kashkari, the only two Republicans presently expressing a desire to evict Brown from the Horseshoe.

There you have it. In a deep-blue, rain-deprived state that's a dusty brown instead of its normal luscious green self this time of the year, a governor named Brown will speak to elected representatives of a population feeling the blues - per the Hoover survey, only 21 percent of Californians believe they'll be better off financially in six months; only 13percent believe they're better off financially than they were a year ago.

Maybe there's some hidden wisdom in Brown keeping the big speech in the netherworld of Kelly and Michael and Kathie Lee and Hoda: Only 21 percent of Hoover's respondents felt favorably toward the state Legislature; a few more - 25 percent - buy into the concept of California's government as a model for other states to follow.

Eight months from now, after a sere spring and summer that likely will leave Californians with parched lawns, unwashed cars and rising food prices, those numbers - not to mention Brown's big speech - might be remembered as . . . well, Sacramento's high-water mark for 2014.

Bill Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow and a former speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson. Reach Whalen at whalenoped@gmail.com..



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