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Brown begins his last term

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POSTED January 4, 2015 7:10 p.m.

SACRAMENTO  (AP) — After winning re-election in a landslide, Gov. Jerry Brown will start his unprecedented fourth and final term with a flourish by promoting a legacy of fiscal stability while pioneering a bullet train to accommodate future generations of Californians seeking clean transportation.

Today, he will be sworn in as the only Californian to serve four terms as governor and deliver his State of the State address that will lay out his vision for the next four years. At age 76, Brown is already the state’s longest-serving and the nation’s oldest governor.

On Tuesday, the agency overseeing the $68 billion high-speed rail project that he has championed will break ground on its first significant section in the Central Valley. And later in the week, the Democratic governor will release his budget proposal for the coming year, with major decisions expected on higher education funding and likely using a record influx of tax revenue to pay down debt service and retirement obligations.

Assembly Minority Leader Kristin Olsen, R-Modesto, said she disagrees with the governor on high-speed rail and believes expanding regional transit systems would be a more cost-efficient but just as effective at improving air quality.

“The governor, I think, looking at the next four years, wants to do all kinds of things,” Nancy McFadden, the governor’s executive secretary, told a crowd last month at a policy conference on California’s future. “But the most important is when he leaves office in 2018, he wants to leave a truly balanced budget, which is where we are now.”

McFadden said perhaps one of the administration’s bigger challenges will be pushing back on many ideas and proposals put forth by lawmakers, local governments and advocates. Brown will continue to focus on paying down billions in debts accrued during the recession and depositing money into the state’s newly reinforced rainy day fund.

California’s unfunded obligation to pay for the health and dental care of retired state government workers grew by 11 percent during the most recent fiscal year to nearly $72 billion.

“The governor said to me yesterday that the fiscal rectitude of the state has a constituency of one, and it’s the governor and his team,” McFadden quipped.

Brown hasn’t revealed how he’ll handle recent tensions with the University of California Board of Regents, which approved tuition increases as much as 5 percent each of the next five years unless the state approves more money for the 10-campus system.

Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon and Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, both Democrats, have pledged to increase state funding in exchange for transparency and efficiencies, but Brown maintains that tuition and state funding aren’t the only options. Brown has suggested offering more online classes, requiring faculty members to devote more time to teaching instead of research, and curbing salaries for administrators and professors to increase access while reducing costs.

Brown handily defeated Republican challenger Neel Kashkari in November without much of a campaign. His ability to generate consensus could establish him among California’s most successful governors.

“As far as the genre of governor of California, this man has mastered it to the level of Hiram Johnson, Earl Warren and his father (Pat Brown),” said former State Librarian Kevin Starr.

The governor’s reputation for frugality will once again be reflected in his swearing-in celebration.

After he is sworn in Monday, there is a private reception that night at the California Railroad Museum, funded by private donations left over from his previous inauguration, for which he spent just $75,000. The governor’s staff expects he will spend a similar amount this time.

By comparison, former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, held lavish affairs, including a black tie gala for 2,000 people, and raised millions for his two inaugurations.

But Brown’s aura of fiscal austerity may be only an illusion.

Since returning to office in 2011, California’s general fund spending has grown 25 percent, fueled by a statewide recovery and the passage of the governor’s Proposition 30, which increased taxes on earnings over $250,000 for seven years and boosted the statewide sales taxes by a quarter cent for four years.

The nonpartisan legislative analyst is projecting state revenue of $111.4 billion for the 2015-16 fiscal year, a 3.7 percent increase over this year’s $107.4 billion general fund budget.

“His most important political success with the budget was that he had these very public transparent things that cut money — taking away state cars, taking away state cellphones,” said Thad Kousser, a professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego. “He was able to spend billions of dollars while looking like a penny pincher.”

Brown’s push for a costly infrastructure project remains controversial even as the California High-Speed Rail Authority commemorates the start of construction for the nation’s first high-speed rail system at a ceremonial groundbreaking in Fresno.

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