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

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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.

“California's state budget is certainly in much better shape than in past years, but no one can predict that it is in the black until after the fiscal year is completed,” says Robert Stern, former president of the Center for Governmental Studies. “There are too many variables: federal funding, the up and down economy, and unforeseen events, such as wildfires, earthquakes, etc.”

Then there's the budget itself, which is an inexact document, says Professor McCuan.

“The budget numbers are a credit to this governor and his fiscal-nose-to-the-grindstone approach," he says. "But this has not come without some smoke and mirrors attached to the numbers – both for how we got here and how we got out.”

That is why experts are preaching caution.

“California has been painted as the poster child of profligate spending,” says Professor O’Connor. “The question is: Can it grow where it needs to grow and embrace the new century, while remaining sound fiscally? It is a real challenge. I think he can do it, and this speech will be the clues to how he will try.”

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