Reporting from Sacramento — When state lawmakers convene again Jan. 4, their plates will be filled with leftovers.
Their agenda is expected to be dominated by issues that have been unresolved in the last few years: state budget problems, pension reform, a new water supply system and legalizing poker on the Internet.
But lawmakers face a huge distraction: The 2012 elections will be the first since their districts were redrawn to make them more competitive. Many officeholders face an uncertain political future.
The backdrop for those anxieties is the state's persistently grim financial situation. The deficit is expected to be nearly $13 billion for the new fiscal year that starts July 1.
"That is the big issue of the year, how we continue to grapple with the economic crisis," said Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez (D-Los Angeles).
So officials are revisiting earlier ideas for raising money — besides increasing taxes, which Gov. Jerry Brown hopes voters will do on the November ballot.
One revenue-spinner could be Internet gambling. Lawmakers held hearings in 2011 on a proposal that the state sanction certain websites for poker and other gambling, with a cut of the action going to the treasury. The matter was postponed until this year amid opposition from some Indian tribes that see such games as competition for their brick-and-mortar casinos.
Now, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) has brought the two sides together in hopes of forging a compromise that lawmakers will pass, according to Mark Hedlund, a spokesman for the leader. Steinberg wants to regulate cyber-gambling "while providing revenue — hopefully hundreds of millions of dollars — to help us reinvest in public schools, higher education and public safety," Hedlund said.
Both Steinberg and Pérez said their priorities include making California's universities more affordable after years of tuition and fee increases. Leaders of the minority Republicans said theirs include job creation, a cap on state spending and an overhaul of the public pension system.
"Reforms will bring jobs," said Sen. Bob Dutton (R-Rancho Cucamonga), who is expected to step down as Senate minority leader.
Sen. Bob Huff (R-Diamond Bar), competing to succeed Dutton, said he wants to reduce bureaucratic red tape to help spur economic recovery.
Brown wants to put before voters a measure to raise taxes by nearly $7 billion, and lawmakers will be under pressure to get the state's financial house in order first, according to Raphael Sonenshein, a political scientist at Cal State Fullerton.
"That way, a better case can be made by the Legislature that voters can trust them with their money." Sonenshein said.
One way they may try to do that is to change the public pension program so the state can afford its future obligations — an issue left over from 2011. California's retirement system is underfunded by tens of billions of dollars.
Brown recently sent the Legislature his own 12-point proposal for retooling pensions. It includes having employees contribute more and raising the retirement age.
A special legislative committee is scheduled to hold hearings on various overhaul plans in mid-January so legislation can move forward relatively early in the year. But once again, Democrats and Republicans are sharply divided over how far to go, and there is even some disagreement within the majority party.
Assemblyman Warren Furutani (D-Gardena), chairman of the special committee, says the Democratic governor's plan is too far-reaching. Furutani prefers to focus on stopping abuses by high-wage earners, such as pension "spiking," rather than on reducing benefits for low-paid public employees.
Another issue the Legislature previously postponed is the state's inadequate and aging water infrastructure. The topic promises to generate vigorous debate again.
Lawmakers agreed in 2010 to put an $11-billion bond measure on the ballot to pay for improvements to water delivery and storage systems but later pulled it, fearing it would be defeated because of the state's economic slump. The measure was delayed until the November 2012 ballot.
But some legislators and environmentalists have criticized the borrowing plan for being too large and stuffed with pork. Steinberg and Pérez said they are willing to scale it back — if they can get the votes.
Steinberg favors reducing it to "well under" $10 billion, according to spokeswoman Alicia Trost. But she noted that it would take a two-thirds vote of the Legislature to change the measure or move it.
Sen. Lois Wolk (D-Davis) is among those who want to take the bond measure off this year's ballot. "I don't think this is the era for more debt, for big bloated projects," she said.
With so many issues vying for lawmakers' attention, they could be tempted to take their eyes off the ball.
In addition to new voting districts for the 100 legislative seats on the June and November ballots, there's a new election system as well. The top two vote-getters in any primary will move on to the runoff, regardless of their party affiliation or lack of it.
"This will be the most unsettling election in memory," said Larry Gerston, a political science professor at San Jose State.
Some lawmakers could find themselves competing against incumbent colleagues to represent the same district. And legislators may spend significant time dialing for dollars from supporters — time away from solving California's problems.
"Different kinds of people handle anxiety in different ways," said John J. Pitney Jr., a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College: some finger worry beads, others say a Hail Mary. "Politicians," he said, "raise money."