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Hoping for help from Obama

Officials across the state are compiling long wish lists for what they hope will be an obliging presidency.

November 16, 2008|David Zahniser and Patrick McGreevy | Zahniser and McGreevy are Times staff writers.

SACRAMENTO AND LOS ANGELES — If you've been elected to something somewhere in California, you're probably writing a wish list for President-elect Barack Obama.

With the inauguration about nine weeks away, Long Beach Mayor Bob Foster is seeking $111 million to replace 28 miles of storm drains. State Sen. Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) is talking up $321 million for sewage-treatment plants and clean-water facilities.

Los Angeles City Councilman Bill Rosendahl wants a light-rail line to Los Angeles International Airport. And money for homeless veterans. And did he mention universal healthcare?

"The sooner he focuses on healthcare, the better," said Rosendahl, who represents coastal neighborhoods such as Venice and Playa del Rey. "It's as important a priority as getting out of Iraq."

Jubilant over the arrival of a Democrat in the White House, government agencies across this heavily Democratic state are hoping not just for a piece of an upcoming stimulus package but also for four years of a California-friendly administration.

California politicians remember the bond that President Bill Clinton forged with the Golden State a decade ago -- and the money that came with it. So this year, the policy pitches and outright shopping lists have an especially broad sweep, taking in such topics as education, energy, transportation, housing, healthcare, job training, immigration and air quality, among others.

Even Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was stumping for Sen. John McCain just a few weeks ago, has begun saying the state will thrive if Obama is successful. Last week, he reminded business leaders in Fresno that the state generates more in federal taxes than it receives in services and funding -- something generally true of states with large numbers of wealthy residents.

"There's 40-some billion dollars they are holding back," Schwarzenegger said. "So it's not like we are asking for a bailout, because it's our money."

One proposal being discussed among Obama advisors is an economic stimulus package that would provide money directly to states so that they can head off tax increases and spending cuts. Such a move could help fill the huge hole in California's budget.

Beyond that, the spending proposals include sound walls along freeways, upgraded electrical transmission lines, port security grants, neighborhood mural programs and tax breaks for the construction of rental housing.

The League of California Cities, which represents 480 municipalities across the state, is looking for up to $10 billion in "energy efficiency" block grants -- money that could be used flexibly by local agencies for green buildings and renewable energy projects.

Other prominent items involve policies, not cash.

The state's environmental advocates, for example, are tired of seeing pioneering clean-air programs blocked by federal officials.

The most notable conflict occurred last year, when the Bush administration refused to grant a waiver allowing the state to enact emissions standards designed to combat global warming. Mary Nichols, chair of the California Air Resources Board, is confident that an Obama administration will grant the state the right to establish vehicle emission standards that are more stringent that federal guidelines.

"I believe the historic role of California in the air and energy fields has been to serve as laboratory, a place where they try out new and more progressive strategies that the federal government can adopt," she said. "That's how it worked up until the time that the Bush administration refused to allow us our vehicle standards."

Nichols herself has been widely discussed as a possible candidate to head the Environmental Protection Agency, which handles clean-air policy at the federal level.

For many elected officials, the lists are being divided into achievable short-term goals and more complex, long-range policy initiatives.

Rep. Hilda Solis (D-El Monte), who represents a portion of the San Gabriel Valley, said she doesn't expect immediate action on two items high on her agenda -- an overhaul of the nation's healthcare system and a reduction in the backlog of immigrants seeking citizenship. But, she said, Obama could move quickly to relieve economic suffering by extending time limits on unemployment insurance and imposing a 90-day moratorium on foreclosures.

"In my district, we already have 2,100 [households] that have lost their homes and 2,300 that are in the process of foreclosure, so we've got a colossal problem," she said.

Some Sacramento officials have scaled back their expectations. The California School Boards Assn. is pushing in the short term for a rewriting of President Bush's signature education initiative, the No Child Left Behind Act. Those changes should acknowledge states such as California that have high numbers of students with limited English skills, said the group's executive director, Scott Plotkin.

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