He listed some legislative accomplishments of recent years, including pension and workers' compensation reform, a water bond, a rainy day fund and cap-and-trade program. Brown noted that those passed with bipartisan support -- though he took some swipes at the minority party, joking there was only one Republican in the chamber who supported his gas tax bill.
Over the course of the 30-minute speech, Brown hit on a wide range of issues -- the recent wildfires and mudslides, climate change, education, high-speed rail, water infrastructure, the gas tax and criminal justice reform.
Assemblywoman Catharine Baker, a Republican from the East Bay city of Dublin, said she feels there are opportunities for GOP lawmakers to work with Brown during his final year in office
"I liked the little line he had about the possibility for pension reform, and I hope what we will do is take this year not to go on a spending spree," she said. "Since he became governor the second time around, (there's been a) 43 percent increase in state spending -- twice the rate of inflation. Instead, we need to focus on how we are going to spend those dollars better. So that's opportunity for us, areas where we can agree."
One area Baker said that Democrats and Republicans in California have common ground: Concern about climate change. And the governor wasted no time in getting to the multiple challenges posed by a threat that has become his signature issue, turning to those just four minutes into the speech.
He spoke about the recent devastating wildfires and mudslides, calling them "a profound and growing challenge." Noting that the California fire season has grown by 78 days in recent years, Brown promised to convene a task force to attack the threat of wildfires, and explore how to maximize carbon storage in the state’s forests, keeping the greenhouse gas out of the atmosphere where it promotes warming.
"They will also consider how California can increase resiliency and carbon storage capacity," he said. "Trees in California should absorb CO2, not generate huge amounts of black carbon and greenhouse gases as they do today when forest fires rage across the land."
He also thanked the first responders and volunteers that responded to those disasters -- gratitude met by a standing ovation in the Assembly chamber.
"We can’t fight nature,” he said. “We have to learn how to get along with her. And that’s not so easy.”
Assemblywoman Monique Limon, D-Santa Barbara -- whose district includes the sites of the devastating Thomas Fire and subsequent deadly mudslides -- said she was gratified to hear Brown announce the new task force.
"I think this is the time where we have a conversation, about what natural disasters mean to the state of California -- this is no longer a county-by-county issue," Limon said. "I am very appreciative of the time he took today to really call out the importance of addressing natural disasters, our response, preparation, communication systems -- all related to how we are going to move forward as a state."
Brown laid the lack of climate progress at the federal level squarely at the feet of “our current president,” stopping just short of referring to Donald Trump by name.
"Despite what is widely believed by some of the most powerful people in Washington, the science of climate change is not in doubt," Brown said. "All nations agree, except one, and that is solely because of one man: our current president."
The governor went on to extol California’s resume as a leader in climate policy, citing the nation’s most comprehensive market for trading greenhouse gas pollution permits, and evidently setting a new, ambitious goal of getting 5 million zero-emission vehicles on the road by 2030. Noting that there are currently only 350,000 in circulation, he allowed that, “We’ve all got a lot of work."
That would be an understatement, as the state's officially established goal has been 1.5 million ZEVs by 2025.
Brown also launched an impassioned defense of the gas tax, Senate Bill 1, passed last year, which Republicans want to ask voters to repeal. He said the funds from that bond -- $5.2 billion a year -- will pay for road, highway and bridge maintenance. He promised to do "everything in my power to defeat any repeal effort that may make it to the ballot" -- a serious threat, given that Brown still has millions of dollars in a campaign account.
"The funds that SB 1 makes available are absolutely necessary if we are going to maintain our roads and transit systems in good repair," he said. "Twenty-five other states have raised gas taxes. Even the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has called for a federal gas tax because the Highway Trust Fund is nearly broke. Government does what individuals can't do ... fighting a gas tax may appear to be good politics but it isn't."
Brown remained bullish on two huge infrastructure projects — high-speed rail and the Delta water tunnels — making only veiled references to recent setbacks in both.
The highly contentious $17 billion tunnel plan would complete a legacy begun by his father, who in the 1960s presided over construction of the California Aqueduct.
The younger Brown, who once famously invited critics of the tunnel plan to “shut up,” did not acknowledge recent reports that his administration is looking at scaling back the plan from building two giant tunnels to one, which would shuttle water from the Sacramento River, under the Delta, to the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California. Those reports have not mollified opponents, who say it would harm the Delta’s already-beleaguered ecosystem and possibly also the quality of drinking water for consumers in the region.
Meanwhile, his favored high-speed rail project continues to suffer from increasing cost estimates and resistance from residents in the planned corridor through the Central Valley. The estimate for one 119-mile section of the planned bullet train line was recently revised upward by $2.8 billion, driven by land acquisition costs and new safety requirements.
“Yes, it costs a lot of money,” Brown allowed, “but it’s still cheaper and more convenient than expanding airports or freeways.”
Brown declared that California is “setting the pace for the entire nation,” and will not be deterred, “whether it’s roads, trains, dams or zero-emission cars."
Brown also touched on schools and universities, garnering a standing ovation from Democratic lawmakers with this line: "Learning takes place in the classroom, and that's why our first job is to support teachers and give them the training and the freedom to teach as they know best."
And one day after the UC Regents delayed a vote on tuition and fee hikes -- at the governor's behest -- he noted that since 2011, the state has increased higher education spending by $5.8 billion. And he talked about the online community college that he first proposed in his 2018-19 budget two weeks ago.
Brown also defended the criminal justice reforms he has championed, which some want to repeal.
After spelling out how much the state's prison system grew since his first two terms as governor more than 30 years ago, Brown pleaded with lawmakers to "take time to understand how our system of crime and punishment has evolved."
"I urge that instead of enacting new laws because of horrible crimes and lurid headlines, you consider the overall system, and what it might need and what truly protects public safety," he said.
Brown finished the speech on a mixed note. After warning that the Doomsday Clock was moved 30 seconds closer to catastrophe just this morning -- and that "our world, our way of life, our system of governance are all at immediate and genuine risk" -- he ended on a more optimistic tone.
"All of this calls out for courage, for imagination and for generous dialogue," he said, citing the hundreds of thousands of people who took part in the Women's March last weekend and the activism of Dreamers in recent weeks.