Political Notebook

Dan Walters: Governor’s same old, same old

No Latin phrases. No paeans to pioneer ancestors. No quotes from obscure philosophers. A brief reference to climate change. Just a couple of mild quips.

The man who used to give State of the State speeches off the cuff now writes them out and reads them with virtually no textual deviation.

Gov. Jerry Brown’s monotonic address Thursday, just shy of 20 minutes, essentially repeated everything he has been saying lately about everything, without a single new angle on any issue.

A politician who once set himself apart from the herd by proposing bold, even wacky, new things that earned him the much-hated sobriquet of “Governor Moonbeam,” has evolved into a dependable political helmsman.

Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing.

During Brown’s second governorship, as he pointedly reminded legislators at the close of the speech, the state’s budget has been balanced, debts have been repaid, unemployment has been halved, and modest relief has been offered to millions of poor Californians.

He’s been a steady hand at the tiller, if not always internally consistent, and an adult in the room with other Capitol’s politicians, nagging them that their actions have consequences, not always good ones.

Brown reminded legislators that the state has seen 10 recessions since World War II and no one knows when the next one will strike, but the state has usually been caught unaware when revenue plummeted. Meanwhile, its budget has become even more volatile because it largely depends on personal income taxes.

“I don’t want to make those mistakes again,” he said, plugging his plan to build up rainy-day reserves that many of his fellow Democrats dislike because they want to spend more on social and medical services.

The steady-as-she-goes, don’t-rock-the-boat tone of Brown’s address indicated that he’s content to continue checking off items on his political bucket list, hoping to leave behind a balanced budget – unlike the deficit-ridden one he bequeathed George Deukmejian in 1983 – and a few concrete manifestations of his gubernatorial presence.

Oddly, however, his speech didn’t mention his two pet projects, twin water tunnels beneath the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and a north-south bullet train. Both face enormous hurdles – legal, political and, particularly, financial – that must be overcome. Their omission from his speech may indicate that Brown fears they could be gigantic busts that would stain his legacy.

As the date of Brown’s departure from the governorship draws closer, one wonders whether he will be content to retire to his cabin in Colusa County, or still sees other political roles to play.

Does the three-time White House hopeful read about Hillary Clinton’s slide and left-winger Bernie Sanders’ surge in their presidential duel and wonder whether party leaders might, in desperation, turn to a popular, seasoned big-state governor who’s just a few years older?