By Sharon Bernstein
SACRAMENTO, Calif., Jan 22 (Reuters) - California Governor Jerry Brown on Wednesday took credit for his state's fiscal rebound, in a state of the state address that also urged continued restraint to lawmakers seeking to rebuild a social safety net tattered by years of tight budgets and economic malaise.
Brown said that since 2010, California has added 1 million jobs and extricated itself from "a financial sinkhole that defied every effort to climb out of it." The speech could be a preview of Brown's campaign themes if he seeks a fourth term at the helm of the most populous U.S. state, as expected.
"To avoid the mistakes of the past, we must spend with great prudence, and we must also establish a solid rainy day fund, locked into the constitution," Brown said.
He called on regulators to loosen some water distribution rules to help California farmers and cities deal with a nagging drought, which he declared an emergency last week. He also touted changes to the way the state funds education, channeling more money to districts with disadvantaged students and allowing more local control over how the dollars are spent.
Brown, a Democrat now in a second stint as governor after serving two terms from 1975 to 1983, has toed a largely centrist path during this go-round at the state's top job, vetoing several bills favored by progressives in his own party, including some gun control measures.
Brown, 75, is widely expected to seek re-election this year. Mark Baldassare, president of the Public Policy Institute of California, said his speech gave the onetime seminarian the bully pulpit as the campaign gets underway and Republican contenders start lining up to oppose him in the election.
"It's an opportunity for him to provide his vision," Baldassare said.
In the speech, Brown barely mentioned one of his key projects, a proposed high-speed rail line to connect Los Angeles with San Francisco. He also declined to mention his support for fracking, the oil and natural gas drilling procedure in which water and chemicals are injected into rock formations, prompting environmental activists to worry about water pollution.
Earlier this month, Brown took a stern line on fiscal restraint when he released his $107 billion budget plan, potentially inviting a fight with some progressive state lawmakers of his Democratic Party who want to restore spending on social programs cut during the long economic downturn.
Key issues facing the state as it emerges from the economic slump include the cost of higher education, the quality of California's once-vaunted public K-12 schools and an ongoing struggle over conditions in its massive prison system.
State Republican leaders said they welcomed Brown's vision of fiscal restraint, but differed on how to implement it.
Assembly Republican leader Connie Conway called for paying down more debt with the projected multibillion-dollar surplus, rather than boosting spending on social programs or high-speed rail.
State Senator Bob Huff, who leads the Republican caucus in that body, urged support for a plan to temporarily ease restrictions in the federal Endangered Species Act on removing water from the fragile Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, allowing more water to flow to drought-parched farms and cities.
"Sometimes we have to realize that human beings are animals, too," Huff said.