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Legislature new but not its problems

Budget woes, ailing economy will make it tough for Sacramento to do much beyond crisis management.

December 01, 2008|Patrick McGreevy | McGreevy is a Times staff writer.

SACRAMENTO — A new two-year session of the California Legislature will be gaveled in today, with lawmakers facing one of the worst budget crises in state history and a sinking economy that will limit their ability to enact new programs.

Brimming with fresh energy and new ideas, 11 new senators and 28 new Assembly members will take their oaths of office only to face the grim task of having to plug a hole in the state budget that is predicted to reach $28 billion within about 18 months.

"It's going to be a very frustrating session for the new members," said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC. "They will be coming to Sacramento with grand ideas about what to change in government, but there is no money."

Lawmakers' failure to solve the state's fiscal problems during a November special session means that it will be job No. 1 next year, said incoming Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), who will assume the leadership post today.

New lawmakers are disappointed that they are going to have to spend much of their time, at least in the early months, trying to find a permanent fix for the problems that have put the state budget in jeopardy year after year.

"It's going to be dominated by the budget downturn," newly elected Assemblyman John A. Perez (D-Los Angeles) said of the session. "My hope is that we are able to lay the foundation for structural reforms."

Perez said his priorities include an end to the two-thirds vote requirement for passing budgets and raising taxes, and changing the way that taxes are divided between the state and local governments to provide more stability to municipalities.

Incoming Assemblywoman Bonnie Lowenthal (D-Long Beach) is worried that her ideas may become the victims of a depleted state treasury. The first bill she plans to introduce, to reduce pollution from chemicals sprayed to decontaminate port cargo containers, will depend on whether there is money to implement new regulations.

"The budget will color everything I plan to address as a new legislator," Lowenthal said.

Republican lawmakers, who have blocked tax and fee increases proposed by Democrats and the governor to pump up state coffers, will seek to counteract the downturn in the economy by emphasizing the creation of jobs.

"Economic stimulus must be the top priority of this Legislature," said Senate Republican leader Dave Cogdill of Modesto. "Growing jobs in California will boost the state's revenues without raising taxes."

Assembly Speaker Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles) said shoring up the state's economy -- with help from the federal government, she hopes -- will be a priority for Democrats as well. Bass and Steinberg have formed a California Economic Recovery Task Force to propose policies and legislation to stimulate the economy. The leaders said they also plan measures to address the state's home foreclosure problem and other underlying causes of the economic meltdown.

But Bass and Steinberg said the fiscal crisis did not mean that lawmakers would give up on other long-standing issues.

"California still has challenges with our foster care system, and global warming, and a high school graduation rate that is unacceptably low," Bass said. "Given the economy, we may have to be especially creative in fashioning solutions to those challenges."

The budget mess will mean that major problems such as the high number of Californians without health insurance could take years to solve, lawmakers say.

"Everything we are talking about will be overshadowed by the budget problem," said state Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), a former Assemblyman newly elected to the upper house.

Leno said advocates for a state-run health insurance program unsuccessfully promoted by departing state Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica) have asked him to reintroduce the proposal in the session. Leno held out little hope that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger would change his position on the proposal, which he vetoed in September on financial grounds. But the senator said he wants to keep the idea before the public in case a more receptive governor succeeds Schwarzenegger in 2011.

Many of this year's costliest education proposals also are still on the shelf. In the state Senate, Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles) is expected to move from her post as Senate majority leader to chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee as she prepares to run for state superintendent of public instruction in 2010.

Romero said she wants to try to reduce the high school dropout rate by reaching out to students as early as middle school, tracking down and "recovering" those who have left before graduation. She also wants to improve the way schools teach immigrant students who are just learning English.

"I want to highlight education as a civil rights issue," she said.

Lawmakers intend to package some issues in ways that highlight their benefit to the economy. One is the state's chronic water shortage.

California voters have approved hundreds of millions of dollars in bonds to improve the state's ability to store and clean water and prevent floods, and Steinberg said going back to the people for more water bonds would help the economy.

"I believe strongly that infrastructure investment is essential to improving the economy and creating high-paying jobs," Steinberg said.

Steinberg said that extending medical insurance to more children may be possible by enlisting the help of the administration of President-elect Obama, who has made healthcare a national priority.

"Our responsibility is to address the budget crisis but also do whatever we can to make progress on other issues that impact the lives of California," Steinberg said.


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