By Peter Henderson and Jim Christie
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - 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 shit done," Brown said this week as he unveiled a $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 lighted a $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 $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.
The state is notorious for political gridlock, and may have further undermined confidence with the discovery earlier this week that the state parks agency had a previously unknown stash of $54 million. Opponents of the tax measure have seized on that as evidence that the state doesn't know how to manage its money.
Further, voters in the fall are likely to face a host of local tax increase measures in addition to Brown's state tax hike. That's in part because one of Brown's major policy initiatives has been to push responsibility for some state services, such as prisons, back to the cities and counties.
"The more tax increases on the ballot, the harder it is to distinguish them and voters say 'Basta!'" said Steven Frates, director of research at the Davenport Institute at Pepperdine University's School of Public Policy, using the Spanish word for enough.
The city of La Mirada, in Southern California, is one of many that want voters to raise local sales taxes. "I'm not going to delude myself that it's not going to be a challenge," said City Manager Tom Robinson.
Brown has had difficulty lining up allies when it mattered most. His tax measures took the long route to the ballot, having to gather signatures after he failed to convince the legislature to approve the proposition. And his plan to reform public pensions is being ignored by the state assembly and senate.
Polls suggest that Brown faces a tough road. A recent Field Poll showed 54 percent support for his November tax plan, but a third of likely voters were less likely to back the plan if the legislature funded the bullet train.
Brown, though, is calculating that California's famous population of dreamers will seize on his vision, said Mark Baldassare, president of the Public Policy Institute of California.
"People are looking for something that will give them hope," he said. "Many people came here with a dream, and they dream of a better life."
Baldassare said that the key would be showing support that crosses political boundaries. Brown has proven to be a formidable campaigner in the past with the ability to build coalitions, and he'll need to do that again.
"He is going to need partners up and down the state," Baldassare said.
Brown could have waited until after the election to announce the water project, said Field Poll Director Mark DiCamillo. "It's a calculated assessment, I believe, that showing leadership will benefit him," he said.
(Reporting by Peter Henderson and Jim Christie; Editing by Jonathan Weber and Anthony Boadle; Desking by Andrew Hay)
(This story was refiled to add dropped word in the thirteenth paragraph)