During a year-end news conference, Brown said he was pleased with his return to the governor's office after a 28-year hiatus and confident that he could accomplish much despite a still struggling economy and a $13 billion budget deficit.

"I'm not a declinist, to think California is in decline, that you have to suck it all in and become a second rate society or economy," Brown told a gathering of reporters at his picnic table near his office.
But he made it clear that passage of his tax initiative, which he hopes to place on the November ballot, will be key to his efforts -- and disaster awaits if it fails.

He plans to ask voters to approve an income tax hike on those who earn $250,000 a year or more as well as a half-cent sales tax increase, to raise about $6 billion.

"If we don't get the $6 billion, cuts will be very, very drastic," Brown said. "And I think the only way this thing passes is if it's perceived as the leadership of California telling people of the state that this is something we really need."

Brown has yet to persuade backers of several other tax initiatives to withdraw their own proposals, which he said could hinder his efforts because numerous choices may confuse or turn off voters.

Did he pass or fail?

Brown declined to give himself a grade for his first year back as governor since he last held the office in 1982, saying, "students don't give themselves grades," but, he added, "I think I took this semester on a pass/fail, and in that sense, I clearly passed." Cutting in half the $26 billion deficit that he inherited was his signal achievement of the year, Brown said.

Republicans gave him a failing grade, saying he wasted his first year by not pushing for meaningful reforms.
"Instead, he sent voters the bill for bailing out Sacramento in the form of tax increases," said Tom Del Beccaro, the state GOP chairman. "He threatened Californians with the fiscal nightmare of draconian cuts to education and services if we didn't adopt his poorly conceived, and economically bad, tax increases.

"Californians didn't fall for the tax increase and his fiscal nightmare never came to pass -- as most fair-minded analysts understood it wouldn't," Del Beccaro added. "His weak leadership left him without any significant first year achievements."

Governing in a time of cutbacks has not been easy, Brown said.

"Politics works when everything is good," he said. "When you have to sacrifice in lean times, it's difficult.
"But I can tell you, I've looked at the economic forecasts, and schools will be in pretty good straits in the next two to three years, and I think California itself, come 2014, will be a lot better off than when I started."

Even as California remains mired in double digit unemployment with a still stagnant housing market, Brown said there's room to plan for a more robust future. High-speed rail still figures in those plans, he said.

"I believe California is a leader, in energy, medical research, venture capital and I'd like to also see it be a leader in high-speed rail," he said.

The high-speed rail plan has faced an intense backlash over its $99 billion cost after voters approved the project with a $33 billion price tag, and some recently began to question its promises to create 1 million jobs.
The Legislative Analyst's Office criticized planners for relying on "highly speculative" funding sources. As a result, the analyst concluded that it's "highly uncertain" the full project will ever get built.

Brown said he expects to have a "very workable water proposal" in coming months to "figure out how you get water to the farmers in Southern California" from Northern California with an improved system of canals and pipes, though he stopped short of advocating placing a water bond on what is already lining up to be a crowded ballot.

He also urged legislators to begin work quickly on pension reform, which, along with further cuts in the budget, are vital to proving how "credible" state government is -- and to winning voters over on taxes.

Pension fight looms

But public employee unions are promising a big fight over any significant changes to their members' pensions, which could put the governor in a tough spot politically with one of his biggest backers.

The governor wouldn't say whether he has plans to run for re-election, but Brown said he remains energized by his job.

"I don't know how I'll feel in a couple years, because this could get tiring or frustrating," he said. "But so far, it's very exhilarating and exciting."

Brown confessed to not having a complete handle on the complexities of the budget, saying for instance that he had no idea that there were hundreds of different funds within the budget.

"I understand more of it, but like the universe, 97 percent is dark matter, for me," he said. "It's endlessly interesting."