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Effort to Rebuild State a Tougher Sell in New Era

The governor is pushing a building plan on a scale not seen since the days of Pat Brown. But the political climate has chilled since then.

January 30, 2006|Maria L. La Ganga and Mark Z. Barabak | Times Staff Writers

The year was 1962. Growth was good, the future unlimited. California's governor was so eager to see the state eclipse New York as America's population leader that, before it even happened, Pat Brown declared four days of grand celebration.

New Yorkers sniffed at the Western upstart, but Brown's proclamation touted the achievements that put California at the forefront "in many areas, including education, water development, highways, science and agriculture."

Today, the Golden State is the same in name only.

Serving at a time of bursting pride and civic promise, Brown oversaw the creation of California's backbone -- the great institutions and public works that undergirded a prosperity he could scarcely have imagined.

But 40 years later, that foundation is crumbling, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has called for a building binge unlike any since that heady era.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday February 09, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction
Reagan governorship -- An article in the Jan. 30 California section about Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's public works proposal said that Ronald Reagan took office as California governor on Jan. 5, 1967. Reagan's inauguration ceremony was on Jan. 5, but he was sworn in Jan. 2.

The challenges he faces are daunting. Money is considerably tighter. The Legislature has already begun to pick apart Schwarzenegger's $222-billion renewal proposal. Californians have a darker view of growth and a more cynical take on their elected leaders. Gone are the days when a politician would crow, as Brown did, "I'm a big-government man."

Even Schwarzenegger's vision reflects his more straitened circumstances.

Whereas Brown was able to tout "the world's biggest pump and the longest aqueduct," policy analyst Elisa Barbour said, Schwarzenegger is left to "stand up and say, 'I'm going to push collaborative planning among multiple stakeholders to promote more efficient use of existing resources.' "

Important? Sure. Sexy? Hardly. But that's the difference between adolescence and middle age, between creation and maintenance, between the boosterism of California's first 100 or so years and the sobering demands of its next century.

So, as Schwarzenegger stakes his political hopes on the promise of a second golden age, the question is whether California today has the wherewithal, the public will and the hefty wallet that enabled the first.

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Schwarzenegger is hardly the first governor to preside over explosive growth. The state's population has increased each year since at least 1900. From the Gold Rush era to the dot-com boom, California has been a magnet for the world, and the population has perennially outstripped the government's ability to meet the needs of its people.

"The state is always off balance, stretching itself precariously, improvising, seeking to run the rapids of periodic tidal waves of migration," wrote historian Carey McWilliams, an observation he could have made just last week.

It was published in 1949.

Today, there are more than 36 million Californians, and the number is expected to reach 58 million by 2040.

For all of the contortions McWilliams described, the growth of California's early years spurred great public investment. In California's first decade of statehood, the Gold Rush more than quadrupled the population; Congress responded by passing the Pacific Railway Act of 1862, which connected California to the population centers of the East.

The Central Valley Project, a crucial water system, was first envisioned in 1919, when California had 3.3 million residents. By the time construction began in 1935, the population had almost doubled. When the state ran out of money during the Depression, the federal Bureau of Reclamation stepped in.

The thinking, said historian Kevin Starr, was simple: "If we don't get water, we won't be able to metropolitanize."

California had 8.5 million residents when Earl Warren became governor in 1943. After a year in office, he convened a special commission to plan for life in post-war California. A good thing, because by the time Warren left office 10 years later, the population had swelled to more than 12 million.

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Although Brown is widely celebrated as the state's great builder, historians and policy experts suggest that view slights the contributions of Warren and Gov. Goodwin Knight, Brown's immediate predecessor.

Together, the three men remade California's landscape. During the 1950s and '60s, the state more than doubled its capacity to store water. Plans for more than 12,000 miles of freeway were completed in 1959, and "almost three-quarters of the state's highways were built in the next 15 years," according to the Public Policy Institute of California, a nonpartisan research center.

It is Brown who is widely celebrated, said the institute's Fred Silva, because "he forged compromises that translated pending proposals into adopted programs." But he also stretched the visions of Warren and Knight.

The Master Plan for Higher Education, hammered out under Brown, expanded and organized California's college and university system. It resulted in construction of three new UC campuses -- Irvine, Santa Cruz and San Diego -- and dramatic growth at outposts in Riverside and Davis. It would be 40 years before California opened another UC campus, in Merced.

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