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Jerry Brown's second act: With California budget balanced, what now?

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The hurdles ahead include prison funding, education reform, climate change, and implementation of the federal health-care act.

Brown is also expected to take on two major infrastructure projects: a $23 billion set of underground canals to transport water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta south and restore Delta habitat, and the first link of a $69 billion high-speed rail corridor.

How to maintain big ideas while spending wisely could hold lessons for other states.

“He is pushing forward a state that hasn't seen his brand of leadership in a generation or more,” says David McCuan, a political scientist at Sonoma State University. “Chris Christie of New Jersey may be the candid governor of the land, but Jerry Brown is the seasoned political pro who also thinks big and pushes ideas well before they seep into the public consciousness.”

Brown will need to use his powers of persuasion with the rail project, says Michael Shires, professor of public policy at Pepperdine University. It needs tens of billions of dollars that have yet to materialize from either voters or the federal government, and polls show that support from Californians is, at best, tepid.

In the Legislature, Brown has a Democratic supermajority. But that could be a problem, too, if Democrats use the more promising budget picture as an excuse to undo Brown's billions of dollars in cuts to education and social services, says Professor Shires.

“The greatest threat to his agenda will come not from business or the powerless Republican presence in Sacramento, but from within his own party as they clamor to entrench their more left-leaning agenda in the state’s fiscal and policy landscape before their two-thirds majority is put to the test in 2014,” he adds.

Moreover, the accuracy of Brown's Jan. 10 pronouncement that California is in the black is up for debate. It is premature to say that his $97 billion budget won't create new deficits, experts say.

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