Like swallows returning to Capistrano, state legislators come back to Sacramento as each new year begins, ready to peck away at what they see as the state’s problems.
Last year, that included giving drivers licenses of a sort to undocumented immigrants, imposing light regulations on hydraulic fracturing of oil shale, making it harder to convert guns into assault-style weapons, setting up an earthquake warning system and renewing California’s commitment to join Nevada in preserving Lake Tahoe.
That left out issues like campaign finance openness and transparency, modernizing the early-1970s-era California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), making it easier to fire lousy or perverted schoolteachers and prison overcrowding. Among others.
Because 2014 is an election year, with every member of the state Assembly and half the state Senate either termed out, moving on or up for reelection, the normal expectation would be for little or nothing of substance to be done. Legislators usually don’t like taking controversial votes near enough to an election for voters to remember them.
But this election year may be different. For one thing, as the year begins there is not yet a substantial re-election challenger to Gov. Jerry Brown. No one who has expressed interest in running can come close to matching his stature, name recognition or bankroll. So he probably will have few electoral worries.
Other statewide officials are pretty much in the same boat. Yes, Democratic Assembly Speaker John Perez will run for state controller, current Controller John Chiang will try to move to the state treasurer’s office and a trio of significant Democrats seeks to become secretary of state. But Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and Attorney General Kamala Harris appear safe from challenges from other Democrats and there are as yet no substantial-looking Republican challengers for any statewide office.
Neither of the state’s two U.S. Senate seats is up for grabs. And only a few legislative and congressional districts are due to be strongly contested, which means the vast majority of incumbents in both major parties will have almost as relaxed a time as they did in 2013, a non-election year. The only real question is whether Democrats will keep the two-thirds legislative majorities they’ve had for parts of the last two years. There is no doubt they’ll keep enjoying huge legislative majorities, even if those may not come up quite to the two-thirds level.
So very few in Sacramento have much to worry about, which could lead to serious business this year.
The single most important bill they could pass this time around is the so-called Disclose Act, which would force public disclosure of all major donors to candidates and initiative campaigns, many of whose donations have previously been hidden behind smokescreen campaign committees with misleading names.
Prison overcrowding could also be solved legislatively. One thing lawmakers could do is make it easier to parole sick and elderly inmates who not only are twice as expensive to maintain as ordinary prisoners, but pose little or no threat to society if released. Murderers and rapists, of course, could be excluded.
Mandatory sentencing rules could also be altered, giving judges more discretion to determine who is dangerous enough to merit confinement in prison and who could be paroled or somehow rehabilitated in a non-prison setting.
Taken together, these moves would probably reduce the prison population enough to satisfy the demands of federal judges whose order to reduce prison occupancy by almost 10,000 more convicts was upheld for a second time last fall by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Modernizing CEQA will be somewhat trickier, as reconciling a simplified and expedited building permit process with environmental protections is no simple thing.
The same with teacher firings, where legislators in the last session passed a measure mandating that districts create a special panel each time administrators want to rid themselves of a teacher. Brown vetoed this one, mostly on grounds that it complicated matters without improving much. There’s room to fix the vetoed measure enough to win Brown’s approval.
So there’s plenty for the lawmakers to do, as usual, and little for them to fear if they act.