Students Report from California StateoftheState January 31, 2011


As we walked through the Capitol, our tour guide shared California statistics with us. California has 58 counties and is home to 38 million people. It is 1,200 miles long, has 16 major metropolitan areas, and has the seventh largest economy in the world. We realized that the policies enacted by the California state legislature and the ideas presented in the State of the State address (an annual speech by the governor to the legislature and citizens that describes the current condition of the state) have a greater impact than either of us had previously recognized — on all 38 million people in all 58 counties.

When we found out we would be attending the State of the State address, we had little idea of what to expect. This feeling of uncertainty continued once we were inside the Capitol, where we got lost in the plentiful (and deceptively similar) arches and domes before being directed by a nice lady at the information desk to the annex, where our hosts at Fiona Ma’s office welcomed us. They told us about Assemblywoman Ma’s “walk and talk” strategy, which she has perfected due to her overflowing schedule, and soon we too were swept up in the busy pace of the Capitol — within 15 minutes of setting foot in her office, we were off on our tour of the building. Our guide was very informative, punctuating his speeches about California history with trivia questions — “Which state does not have a bicameral legislature? No, not Alaska, but Nebraska, which eliminated one house in the Great Depression to save money.” What we found most interesting was the transparency of government to the people — that legislature and committee meetings are open for public viewing. Although governmental decisions can often seem distant and shrouded in secrecy, this openness would later be reflected in Governor Brown’s speech, when he quoted the California constitution Article 2, Section 1: “All political power is inherent in the people.”

On our tour, the majesty of California’s history stood in stark contrast to its current dire financial situation. California is really caught between a rock and a hard place — between cutting social services, raising taxes, or letting the deficit grow even larger. In his State of the State address, Governor Brown stressed approaching California’s issues from a realistic and honest perspective. As public school students, we see the impact of the budget deficit and resulting cuts to education every day — our School’s Site Council even has to worry about having enough paper for the spring semester. Governor Brown seemed to realize that Californians were being affected by the state’s economic situation, and stressed bipartisanship in the face of a real fiscal emergency. He stressed the many hard choices ahead and called for input, noting, “This state belongs to all of us, not just those of us in this chamber.” This connected to his desire to hear both from legislators, especially those who disagreed with his plan, and the voters of California. The governor joked throughout his speech, even teasing Republicans for not applauding, but we could almost sense the tension and frustration involved in confronting a problem of this magnitude without full cooperation from both political parties. He empathized with the people of California when he said, “[voters] see that their leaders are divided when they should be decisive and acting with clear purpose.”

We support Governor Brown’s plan for budget reform and the priority that he has given the issue. We also agree with his plan for a special election that will allow voters to weigh in on tax extensions that would prevent further cuts to education and social services. When we asked Assemblywoman Fiona Ma about her take on the state of California, she pointed out the need for Republicans to cooperate with Democrats in an effort to promote the June ballot initiative. In our eyes, there is no reason why the voters should not have the opportunity to voice their opinions on this issue. If the majority of Californians are willing to approve and pay tax extensions to preserve programs they value, then there will be no need for the government to make further cuts. Despite predominantly agreeing with Governor Brown’s approach to the budget deficit, and although we understand the difficulty of making cuts, we regret his decision to cut $500 million from the University of California system. According to a January 11 San Francisco Chronicle article, for the first time in California history, the UC system will receive less funding from the state than it does from student tuition. Placing the financial burden on students, especially in tough economic times, bodes poorly for the future of California. Where will the state find the “the inventors, the dreamers, the entrepreneurs, the venture capitalists” that Brown praised as an integral part of the California dream if the state is not working to nurture its young people through education? Ultimately, in our eyes, this is a time for people to make necessary sacrifices, be it paying higher taxes or accepting lower pensions, to promote a more economically stable future for California.

Although the governor’s speech was relatively short in length, it served the purpose of recognizing the core issues Californians face, without sugar-coating the seriousness of our circumstances. As we left the Capitol, we overheard a woman responding to the speech in an interview. She criticized Governor Brown’s reference to facing pensions, saying, “Anyone can face a problem — it takes a leader to fix it.” We disagree with the notion that the governor was brushing off advocates for pension reform. He simply executed the purpose of the State of the State address, which is to report on the condition of the state; had he provided instantaneous solutions to complicated issues, it would have undercut the seriousness of the crisis California faces. We, as young Californians who hope to remain Californians for years to come, look forward to seeing the well thought out and lasting solutions to come.