10 stories to watch in California politics for 2013

10:32 AM, Jan 1, 2013   |    comments
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2013 isn't an election year, and promises to be the first year in a long time without a severe fiscal crisis in California.  So that means a year where there won't be much to watch in political circles, right?

Think again.

Some fascinating story lines seem poised to play out over the next 12 months in California politics.  Here are 10 worth watching.

Who's Driving at the Capitol? There are many hands on the wheel of state government, but never in modern times have all of them been of the same political persuasion.  2013 offers Democrats singular control in Sacramento, and how they wield that power -- and who really is in charge -- is going to be the big question: Democratic legislative leaders? The most liberal of Democrats under the Capitol dome? Moderates? Governor Jerry Brown?

So far, the governor's message to his fellow Democrats seems to be: easy does it.  "It has to be a year that we keep one foot on the brake and the other foot modestly on the accelerator," he told the Associated Press in a recent interview. Car talkers say that's not such a hot way to drive, and even so there's the question of whether it's the kind of driving that Brown's fellow Democrats are willing to practice.  For now, Brown's is the dominant voice. But the Legislature, on a Democratic supermajority vote, does have the power to override a veto. Of course, that hasn't happened to a California governor since 1979... a governor named Jerry Brown.

Republican Relevance: All of that Democratic political power raises real questions about the role of Republicans, both in the Legislature and in the larger public debate about the issues of 2013.  On paper, there's not anything for which Democrats need GOP support this year -- taxes, spending, ballot measures, laws enacted immediately via an urgency vote. But because Democrats aren't all the same flavor in politics, party infighting may mean some deal brokered with willing Republicans. The question will be whether any of the remaining 36 GOP legislators sees value in such proposals, and whether the Republican faithful would prefer to let Democrats "own" all of the decisions over the next two years... and thus run a 2014 campaign season against those same actions.

Keep an eye, too, on the reorganization of the California Republican Party; the man who seems to want to be the next chairman is one widely seen as the sharpest strategist on the GOP side of the aisle. But can even Jim Brulte repair the party infrastructure, and fill its coffers, in time for the next election?

A Supremely Big Decision: The national debate over same sex marriage, in many ways, began in California. And the saga over the voters' 2008 decision on the issue - a constitutional amendment making it illegal - will end in 2013 with a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court's decision in December to take the Proposition 8 case, Hollingsworth v. Perry, leaves opponents of gay marriage with only one way to preserve the Prop 8 ban, but a powerful one: action by a Supreme Court dominated by conservative jurists. And like so many cases, the man in the middle is Anthony Kennedy, the Sacramento native whose earlier legal opinions on gay rights issues are leading some to say California's 2008 initiative is in serious jeopardy.

Crime and (Local) Punishment: Governor Brown's signature policy victory in 2011 was a complex government realignment, where state control of several services was handed to California's 58 counties. Voters in November enshrined funding for those services in the California Constitution, via Proposition 30. But a key element of that realignment -- shifting more convicted felons from state prison to county jails -- is far from over and still controversial. The year to come will see no doubt more questions about the mechanics of the law (i.e., how the funding is allocated) and the logistics of the law, as some counties struggle to find space for all the new prisoners. And remember that the shift was a major part of the federal court orders related to reducing the state's prison population; look for more on that in 2013, too.

The Train to Somewhere: It took the better part of a decade for high speed rail enthusiasts to line up enough money to break ground on the north-to-south bullet train project, money largely borrowed by the state with the approval of voters in 2008. The federal government has chipped in a little more, but as construction actually begins in the Central Valley in 2013... the real question is whether the lion's share of the projected $68 billion needed will materialize? Congressional Republicans have rejected funding requested by President Barack Obama, and the fiscal cliff negotiations also have threatened to block long-term federal investment. Supporters, including Governor Brown, point out that all of that money isn't needed in the immediate future. But as the effort to build the Merced-to-Fresno initial portion begins, there are serious question marks about whether those tracks will ultimately make it to their final destination.

A Tax By Any Other Name: Let's stipulate that the public's definition of a "tax" is a lot less nuanced that the one used by policy makers and politicians. In fairness to those in government circles, there are reasons for splitting hairs; a "fee" is assessed on a much more narrow subset of citizens, for example, and often to offset some other government expense. Regardless, expect to hear the "Is it a tax?" question come up in 2013, as Democrats in the Legislature have the power to impose fees, taxes, and more on their own. But what about Gov. Jerry Brown? His 2010 campaign promise of "no new taxes without a vote of the people" was originally unpopular with at least one Democratic legislative leader.  Nonetheless, it drove the decision to take the tax that became Prop 30 to the fall ballot. But how does Brown define a tax hike? For example, the elimination of a tax credit is, under state law, a tax increase that requires a legislative supermajority vote.  Remember, too, that Brown pushed (unsuccessfully) for a tax change in 2010 that critics called a tax increase.

Hopefully if the governor chooses a liberal definition of his pledge, he'll find a way to explain himself better than his predecessor. Asked in 2006 to explain why a proposed water fee wasn't breaking his no-tax pledge, Arnold Schwarzenegger offered this instant classic: "You know, a lot of times, you know, fees are fees and taxes are taxes. And that's why they're called fees. And that's why they're called taxes."

2014 Dreaming: For politicians and political junkies, it's never too soon to start strategizing about the next election. And 2014 is closer than you think, a big election featuring every statewide office, and 100 seats in the Legislature plus all 53 congressional seats. Tops on the intrigue list: will Jerry Brown run for a record-tying fourth term as governor? Will he face any serious challenge (newcomer or veteran)? Will the top-two primary system lead a Democrat to ponder challenging the 74-year old icon's apparent lock on the job? And what about other statewide offices, especially ones that could be contested by multiple termed-out legislators? The angling will begin soon.

Policies to Ponder: There are some pretty big policy debates on the horizon for this new year in state government. The governor has put three on the table: implementation of the federal health care law, K-12 school funding (directing money to low income and English learning students), and water issues from a re-do of the 2014 water bond to additional work on plans for a Delta peripheral tunnel. Add to that the new national focus on gun control, and the annual debate on changes to the state's landmark environmental law, which may actually bear fruit this time. 2013 will be a busy year.

Prop 13 Percolates? With all of those big policy issues, it's hard to imagine there bring political bandwidth to open up a serious debate about overhaul of the legendary 1978 tax limitation initiative, Proposition 13. And yet, there's buzz in some circles -- led both by liberal activists and government reform advocates -- that the public may finally be ready, and the political stars aligned, to overhaul Prop 13. Legislation is already pending to tweak Prop 13 thresholds for local tax votes. Expect, too, another debate on Prop 13's limitations on commercial property tax rates.

Leaders for the Long Haul: Sometime this new year... earlier rather than later if recent history is any guide... we'll start to hear murmurs at the state Capitol about who wants to succeed Assembly Speaker John Perez and Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, both termed out of office in 2014. Perez, in particular, represents a trend in recent years of taking the reins almost as soon as taking office, thus ensuring a longer leadership that 1990's term limits law made almost impossible. But now, those limits have been loosened. Voters approved Proposition 28 this past June, and the new crop of freshman legislators are now eligible for 12 years in a single job. Which begs the question: will we see a freshman again angle for leading a house, but this time for a decade or more? It's less likely in the Senate (fewer newcomers). But in the Assembly, who knows? If it happens, it could be the leadership kickoff of someone with the second longest speakership in California history, behind the 15 years of the iconic Willie Brown.


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