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California's Governor Brown thinks big in spite of struggles

SAN FRANCISCO -- California may be struggling to make ends meet, but Governor Jerry Brown is still thinking big.

The 74-year-old governor is championing major public works projects, including a statewide bullet train network and giant tunnels for delivering fresh water, even as he tries to convince voters to approve a tax increase in the fall.

“I want to get (expletive) one,” Brown said this week as he unveiled a US$14 billion project to move fresh water from north to south while protecting fish in the Sacramento river Delta. The proposal came less than a month after Brown green lit a US$68 billion high-speed rail system.

“Biting off too much? There's an election every two years and sometimes we get special elections!” he told reporters while introducing the water plan. “If the fear of electoral outcomes is going to be a basis of paralysis, we are never going to get anything done.”

Brown in June signed a state budget that closed a nearly US$16 billion deficit, but the plan relies on voters approving a ballot measure that will boost income taxes on the wealthy and temporarily increase sales taxes.

“The national equivalent would be Barack Obama talking about balancing the federal budget and at the same time unveiling a mission to Mars,” said Bill Whalen, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution who was an aide to former Republican Governor Pete Wilson.

“On the one hand, he's telling voters we have no more money and need to raise taxes,” Whalen said. “On the other hand, he wants to spend billions of dollars on projects like high speed rail and the water tunnels.”

Though California has historically benefited immensely from government investment in technology, aerospace, higher education and other areas, today it does not seem like a state ready for a spending binge.

The city of Stockton recently filed for bankruptcy protection, and at least two other cities will likely soon do the same. The unemployment rate is among the highest in the United States, and many parts of the state are still reeling from the housing bust.

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