Mash-ups to watch in 2012: Potential clashes abound in the Capitol and the capital region
By Stuart Leavenworth, Editorial page editor
The Sacramento Bee Published: Sunday, Jan. 1, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1E
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What do you think will be the most hard-fought political issue in California this year, and why? To comment, please use our comments section at the end of the story.
Every election year in California can prove dangerous for bystanders. But 2012 is shaping up to be a meteor storm of colliding causes and ballot initiatives. Here are a few:
1. TAXES – Forget about Sutter. Can Jerry Brown make his tax increase the top dog on the November ballot?
To raise $7 billion yearly and avoid further cuts to schools and services, the governor wants voters to increase taxes on the wealthy, and also increase the state's sales tax by a half-cent. But at least three other groups are eyeing the November ballot with possible initiatives to raise taxes or reform the tax system. Can the governor urge promoters of these tax measures to hold off – thereby increasing the chances that voters will approve his? Or will there be a mash-up of tax hikes on the ballot?
Key dates: Mid-March or soon after for proponents of tax measures to collect signatures to qualify for the November ballot.
2. PENSIONS – Can the governor persuade Democrats to support substantive pension reform?
Brown has staked his tax increase proposal on Democrats joining him in an overhaul of state pensions he unveiled in November. "We've got to win the confidence of the people to achieve some of the other things we want to achieve," Brown told a legislative committee examining pension reform last month.
Yet labor groups and their supporters in the Legislature say Brown's plan goes too far. If they block it, it could inadvertently help Republicans and pension reform activists who are pushing much more far-reaching measures for the ballot. Those initiatives would attempt to cut benefits for existing state workers, whereas the rollback in Brown's proposal would fall largely on state workers hired in the future.
Key dates: January for fundraising reports; mid-March or later for ballot signatures. June or July for Brown to get legislative approval for his plan.
3 CRIMINAL JUSTICE – Are voters ready to reconsider "get-tough-on-crime" statutes?
Three measures could end up on the November ballot that would dramatically change California's sentencing laws and realign criminal justice responsibilities.
Opponents of capital punishment are collecting signatures for an initiative to end the death penalty in the state and replace it with mandatory life sentences. Opponents of the state's "three-strikes law" this month got language approved for an initiative that would reform the tough sentencing law, meaning they can start gathering signatures.
Meanwhile, the governor is pushing for a constitutional amendment to secure funding for local governments so they can provide public services recently shifted to them under the state's "realignment" plan. Passage of the first two could save state costs for death row and incarceration, but likely will be strongly opposed by some victims' rights groups and prosecutors. Rejection of the other would give the state more budget flexibility but would weaken local support for realignment.
Key dates: Mid-March for supporters to get signatures for the death penalty ban and the three-strikes modification. Legislative session for the constitutional amendment.
4 HIGH-SPEED RAIL – Will lawmakers continue to support the state's high-speed rail plan?
The California High-Speed Rail Authority needs a thumbs-up from lawmakers to begin construction in the Central Valley this fall. Some lawmakers want to defund the project and go back to voters to rescind authorization. Others, seizing on findings from the Legislative Analyst's Office, want to just change the route or find a way to pump money into existing passenger rail.
Key dates: Legislative session.
5 WATER FUNDING – Will the $11.1 billion water bond remain on the November ballot?
Delayed once already, the "Safe, Clean and Reliable Drinking Water Supply Act of 2012" is slated to go before voters in November. If voters gave their blessing, the state would attempt to sell $11.1 billion in bonds for various water projects that lawmakers approved in 2009.
Yet Gov. Brown is lukewarm about the size of the water bond, and many lawmakers, environmentalists and other groups have criticized the package as laden with pork. Brown could seek to delay it again, or pare it down, but that would take a two-thirds vote of lawmakers.
To complicate matters, the package includes $2.25 billion for restoration efforts in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta – the linchpin to a larger deal, which Brown supports, to build a canal or tunnel around or through the Delta to improve water deliveries.
Key dates: End of summer legislative session.
6 LABOR POWER – Do voters want to limit labor unions in raising money from members for political lobbying?
Wealthy Republicans have qualified another so-called "paycheck protection" initiative that would limit corporations and unions from collecting political funds from employees. The measure is largely aimed at limiting the clout of unions, since it would prevent them from collecting funds from members through payroll deductions.
Voters have rejected similar measures twice, but proponents are back for a third try, this time with support from GOP benefactor and Stanford University physicist Charles Munger Jr., and endorsements from former Secretary of State George P. Shultz and others. Expect both sides to spend huge bucks on this fight – possibly diverting funds they would otherwise spend on any pension reform or other measures on the ballot.
Key date: Nov. 6 ballot.
7 GOVERNMENT REVAMP – Do voters want sweeping changes at the Capitol?
Billionaire Nicolas Berggruen and his Think Long Committee unveiled a sweeping 23-page proposal last year to reform the state's governance. Among other things, it would revamp the tax code – taxing services for the first time – and create a 13-member super-council that could propose governmental reforms and take them directly to voters without having to collect signatures or get approval from lawmakers.
Some of its less far-reaching reforms overlap with those of the California Forward Action Fund. That group has proposed a ballot measure that would create a two-year budget cycle, require lawmakers to identify funding sources for new programs or tax cuts, and bring more transparency to legislative decisions.
If both reform efforts were to make the November ballot, voters would have a rare opportunity to declare whether they want sweeping, or incremental change.
Key dates: Mid-March.
8 SPENDING CAP – Do voters want to limit spending, even as they consider tax increases?
As a response to the governor's tax proposals, three groups – the California Taxpayers Association, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association and the Small Business Action Committee – want to reset a 1979 spending restriction known as the Gann Limit. They would reset the spending restriction at a 2010-11 level and limit growth based on a formula driven generally by personal income growth and population.
In years when tax revenues are greater than the limit, the state would first have to pay down debt and then divide up to $2 billion between schools and a rainy-day fund. If money is left over, the state would return funds to taxpayers. That means that if Brown's tax hike and the spending cap were to pass, the state would first have to pay off debt instead of closing the immediate deficit.
9 EDUCATION SPENDING – Are voters ready to pump more money into K-12 schools, absent changes in teacher seniority rules and school accountability?
Civil rights lawyer Molly Munger is promoting a tax initiative to boost funding for public schools. The latest version would raise $3 billion for state bond repayment for the first four fiscal years, with the remaining $7 billion going to K-12 schools and early childhood programs. For the final eight years of the 12-year initiative, $10 billion would go toward public schools and pre-kindergarten programs.
Yet some school reform groups are leery of investing more in public education, absent reforms such as measures to hold administrators and teachers more accountable for student performance. Brown, for his part, seems increasingly opposed to adding more rules on school accountability. Yet he clearly doesn't like the timing of Munger's measure, which, as noted above, could undercut support for his own proposal to raise taxes.
Key dates: Mid-March.
10 ONLINE GAMBLING – Can casino-owning tribes and other interests reach agreement on legislation to legalize Internet poker and other forms of gambling?
Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg last year put on hold legislation that would legalize online poker and other forms of Internet gambling in California. It will come back this year in a big way, with casino-owning tribes, owners of horse racing tracks and other interests fighting to protect their interests or get a piece of the pie.
That lobbying juggernaut received an extra boost last month, when the U.S. Department of Justice issued a ruling suggesting that its ban on online gambling now applied only to sports betting. That could make it easier for states to legalize other forms of online gambling, such as poker.
Key dates: Legislative session.
11 TOP-TWO VOTING – Will the so-called "open primary" result in the election of more moderate candidates?
Voters approved Proposition 14 in 2010, which authorized a "top two" system of voting in state and congressional races. This will be the first year the new law will be in effect. That means that, in the June primary, candidates for office will be on a single ballot, regardless of party affiliation. The top two vote-getters will head to the November ballot, meaning in some races the runoff could consist of a Democrat against a Democrat, a Republican against a Republican or a third-party candidate against one from the leading parties.
Supporters say the "top two" system could result in more candidates appealing to voters in the political center. Yet many experts doubt it will result in immediate or even long-term change. As John J. Pitney Jr. of Claremont College has written, "Twenty years ago, we Californians adopted term limits in hopes that they would bring us different kinds of politicians who would solve our problems. That reform has been a disappointment. The new one will be, too."
Key date: June 5 primary.
12 STRONG MAYOR – Can Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson get the City Council to put his latest strong-mayor plan on the ballot?
Johnson last month released his latest plan to enhance the powers of the Sacramento mayor, giving the mayor power over the budget and some City Council decisions. He needs five council votes to get it on the June ballot. If he fails, he expects to collect signatures to put the proposal before city voters on the November ballot.
Key date: Jan. 17.
13 SACRAMENTO ARENA – Will Sacramento, the NBA and a prospective operator agree on a deal for a new sports and entertainment complex downtown?
The city issued a "request for qualifications" for companies interested in leasing the city's parking facilities as a way to provide upfront money for a downtown arena. If there is sufficient interest, the City Council will then face a key decision – whether it wants to issue a formal "request for proposal" that would commit the city toward selecting a bidder for the city parking. Yet even if the council decides to lease out city parking, and even if prospective arena operator AEG commits $50 million or more to the project, it remains unclear how much the NBA and the Maloofs, the owners of the Sacramento Kings, will commit.
Key dates: Mid-February for leasing city parking; later for an overall arena deal.
Obviously, this is not a comprehensive list. There are other potential mash-ups – including attempts to repeal the Dream Act, negotiations to loosen the California Environmental Quality Act and efforts to regulate health plan rates. There are many more, and undoubtedly you will let me know about them.