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Legislators return to a full agenda

In addition to lingering budget issues, they must deal with water and energy matters and prison crowding.

August 16, 2009|Patrick McGreevy

SACRAMENTO — Fresh off their summer recess, California lawmakers will begin this week trying to salvage a legislative year marked by little more than financial crises and partisan bickering.

Their agenda includes upgrading California's water system, crafting a bigger move to renewable energy and reducing crowding in prisons. But Democrats' and Republicans' starkly different ideas about how to meet those goals -- along with lingering budget issues -- could undermine their ability to get big things done.

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) said he hopes to "build on some positive achievements instead of just trying to hold off disaster." But with so much unfinished business, some involving partisan disputes that have festered for years, Steinberg and other leaders are already talking about not completing work on key parts of their agenda until 2010.

And indeed, the ruling Democrats first intend to look back. They want to undo nearly $500 million in cuts to healthcare and other state services made last month by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Steinberg has sued Schwarzenegger over that action, asking the courts to overturn it. If the lawsuit is successful, the move could exacerbate the state's budget problems, undermining efforts to move ahead with other policy goals.

The Senate leader and other lawmakers say they hope to find alternative ways to recoup some health and social service funding, perhaps by identifying other cuts or revenue that would be acceptable to the governor.

Assembly Speaker Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles) said much of the money that Schwarzenegger cut could be restored by dipping into the state reserve. The governor has rejected that idea in the past.

Water

Water will be next up, Steinberg said. Legislative hearings are to begin Tuesday on a package of proposals aimed at providing more reliable water supplies to a growing and thirsty state.

Assembly Republican leader Sam Blakeslee of San Luis Obispo said a water solution was a top priority of his caucus because it would create jobs.

A UC Davis study estimated that the state's water shortage has meant the loss of 30,000 seasonal jobs this year.

But differing interests have clashed for more than a decade on the issue; points of controversy include whether dams and diversionary canals should be built.

Current proposals include protecting fish and wildlife in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta; establishing water conservation goals; better managing groundwater and surface water supplies; and coming up with the billions of dollars needed to rebuild California's inadequate water treatment, storage and delivery works.

"There are big issues and historic differences, but there is also a great sense of urgency to do something, particularly about the delta," said V. John White, a veteran environmental consultant.

Prisons

Lawmakers also are divided over how to cut $1.2 billion from the prison budget. A proposal by the governor and Democratic leaders would shift more inmates to local jails and probation programs to reduce the prison population by 37,000 in two years.

That plan has run into stiff opposition from Republicans, who say it would put more criminals on the streets.

GOP lawmakers want to save money by cutting healthcare and rehabilitation services for prisoners.

"It's an outrage that we've spent billions on complying with court orders that mandate Cadillac prison healthcare," said Senate Minority leader Dennis Hollingsworth (R-Murrieta).

But a panel of judges ruled early this month that healthcare in state lockups isn't good enough, and they gave the state until next month to come up with a plan to reduce the prison population by nearly 43,000 inmates over two years.

"If we don't do something, they are just going to open the prison gates," Bass said.

"We obviously don't want that to happen. So looking at the Corrections Department will be high on our agenda when we get back," she said.

Renewable energy

Another battle is expected over bills aimed at boosting the state's use of renewable energy including solar, wind and geothermal power. Under existing law, 20% of the state's power is to come from renewable energy by next year.

That amount would rise to 33% by 2020 under a proposal (SB 14) by Sen. Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto) and a competing bill with additional requirements.

Simitian's measure is supported by the Natural Resources Defense Council and Sierra Club California, but it has drawn powerful opponents including the California Chamber of Commerce, PG&E and the California Manufacturers and Technology Assn.

"This has been the biggest, most difficult issue before my committee," said Assembly utilities committee Chairman Felipe Fuentes (D-Sylmar).

Simitian said the bill is an important next step in reducing the state's dependence on polluting coal, but the Chamber of Commerce has argued that the proposal lacks provisions "to ensure ratepayers are not exposed to excessive and unnecessary cost."

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