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Legislative year ends with a whimper

Sacramento lawmakers adjourn with little progress to pacify a restive public. Key prison and energy efforts got watered down, and the governor plans to veto most of the few bills that did pass.

September 13, 2009|Eric Bailey

SACRAMENTO — As the gavel banged an end to the 2009 legislative year in California's Capitol, shell-shocked lawmakers had little to show for it except discontent, partisan dysfunction and a colleague's personal disgrace.

"This was the year that wasn't," lamented Assemblyman Mike Villines (R-Clovis), until recently the lower-house minority leader.

Amid a crumbling economy and a canyon of government debt, state lawmakers seemed to spin their wheels through much of the year -- and the final days were little different.

They bickered over how to end the state's multigeneration water war. They balked at tough changes to relieve prison overcrowding. They grimaced over a sex scandal that last week brought the resignation of Assemblyman Mike Duvall (R-Yorba Linda).

Meanwhile, the Legislature's testy relationship with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger grew more tense as the governor issued a scorched-earth veto threat in a bid to leverage a water deal and then killed a mom-and-apple-pie bid to honor America's Vietnam War dead.

Looming like a storm front was the prospect that lawmakers might soon face a public revolt.

Business leaders are pushing a constitutional convention while a conservative group is mounting an effort to make the Legislature part-time. A poll by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California days ago showed that three-quarters of Californians believe their government has gone wrong.

"If we don't break through the partisan juggernaut," said Villines, "the people are going to do it for us."

Democrats fear the governor might champion a part-time Legislature -- though lately Schwarzenegger seems reluctant to let lawmakers go home, as they normally would until resuming in the new year. The governor has already called a special session on education and is expected to also ask the houses to stick around this fall to consider revolutionary changes in the state's tax system.

For most of the year, the painful task of deficit reduction consumed the Capitol. After a midsummer deal was struck to balance the budget, lawmakers settled in for the final month of the session hoping to forge a few tectonic changes.

But the final weeks saw few unequivocal successes.

Assembly Speaker Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles) brokered a deal with health insurance companies to keep nearly 700,000 children of the working poor from being pulled off the government's Healthy Families insurance program. She even coaxed support from across the aisle -- a rare Capitol occurrence.

"I feel good about a lot of things," Bass said, citing an extension of unemployment insurance and a bill helping troubled mortgage holders keep their homes. "But it was an extremely painful year, just completely overshadowed by the economic crisis."

Even the few victories seemed muted.

Democratic leaders pushed into the final day bullish on their No. 1 environmental priority -- boosting state energy standards to require that 33% of all electricity be from renewable sources by 2020.

But prodding by power company lobbyists yielded legislation adorned with requirements for new dams in Canada and loopholes for energy firms that don't meet the mandates.

The governor vowed to veto the legislation. Matt David, his communication director, called the slate of bills "protectionist schemes" that would kill California's solar industry, and said Schwarzenegger would issue an executive order to enact the 33% mandate on his own.

"The environment was not treated with a lot of respect this year," groused Dan Jacobson, legislative director for Environment California, which is urging the governor not to veto the bills.

Even a key budgetary issue -- how to cut prison costs -- dragged on to haunt the final days of the session.

Schwarzenegger's prison overhaul plans -- a raft of long-debated changes to save money and start satisfying a federal court decree to cut overcrowding -- ran aground in the Assembly. Several lawmakers, including key Democrats who supported the sweeping ideas in the past, balked out of fear that they could be portrayed in next year's elections as soft on crime.

With time and patience running short, grumbling lawmakers in the Senate on Friday went along with a stripped-down measure lacking several of the most critical cost-saving proposals, such as electronic monitoring and home detention for some low-level offenders. One irked senator dubbed the final agreement "prison lite."

Industry power was on display in the defeat of an attempt by state Sen. Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills) to ban the use of the chemical bisphenol A, or BPA, from baby bottles, toddler sippy cups and other food and drink containers for children 3 and younger.

Chemical firms argued that health regulators in California and beyond had found no proof of BPA causing harm, while Pavley vowed to push her "David vs. Goliath fight" anew next year.

And the final days drew the interest of some wealthy political donors.

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