Ballot Measures Will Upstage Lawmakers in Setting State’s 2016 Agenda
Thursday, January 7, 2016
SIGN OF THE TIMES: The most buzzworthy story to surface as the California Legislature returned to Sacramento this week carried a memorable hashtag: “Tampons for all.”
Dispatched into the Twitterverse by Assemblymember Cristina Garcia, the felicitous phrase summed up her pitch for a $20 million bill that would exempt feminine hygiene products from sales taxes.
The locution also served as a small example illustrating the Capitol’s anticipated central preoccupation this year: finding myriad and creative ways to spend more than $3 billion in unanticipated, “surplus” taxpayer revenue already collected this fiscal year.
Before Governor Jerry Brown even introduced his new budget, giddy Democratic lawmakers were ballyhooing new proposals with extravagant price tags, notably a $2 billion measure to build housing for the homeless — this before lawmakers begin to address either the $1 billion cost of filling a gap in health-care funding for poor people or a $56 billion backlog for roads and bridges, two costly items left from last year.
Several key factors, however, make boodles in new spending less than a sure thing: Skinflint Brown notoriously guards against the free-spending instincts of legislators of his own party; a new caucus of moderate, business-minded Democrats in the Assembly is growing increasingly influential; and Republicans have narrowly blocked their partisan rivals from achieving the two-thirds majorities they need to approve taxes on their own.
“While there are few signs of immediate contraction, another recession is on the way. We just don’t know when,” Brown said during last year’s budget process. “We have to learn from history and not keep repeating our mistakes.”
PAGING HIRAM JOHNSON: Another realpolitik circumstance portends a lack of soaring legislative achievement in 2016: 100 of 120 state lawmakers are on the ballot this year, which historically keeps political courage in short supply. So most of the state’s political action will focus on a raft of ballot initiatives — perhaps a record number — that will shape California public policy on everything from poverty to pot. Three key examples:
• Guns. Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, working hard to clear the field for his 2018 campaign for governor, will star in at least three high-profile ballot fights, none more timely than a proposed measure to impose new statewide gun-control regulations, including background checks for the purchase of ammunition, a ban on large-capacity ammunition magazines, and other restrictions.
• Pot. Newsom also has a high-profile role in the campaign to legalize recreational marijuana in California, although the key player is tech billionaire Sean Parker, who recently pledged a dollar-for-dollar match for all contributions to the Marijuana Policy Project’s bid to win approval for its initiative, expected to cost about $20 million.
• Poverty. Supporters of another measure, organized as Make Poverty History, have raised more than $1 million to qualify a sweeping initiative to expand prenatal, child care, preschool, job training, and other services through a simple mechanism: slapping a surcharge on tax bills for properties priced at $3 million and above, on a sliding scale of 0.3 up to one percent of assessed value.
THE WANNABES: As most media attention focuses on the presidential race, Californians again will be mostly spectators in national politics, absent one scenario: Members of the large and, um, colorful Republican field keep beating each other’s brains out until the June 7 primary, in which case the Golden State could determine the GOP nominee.
A second big national political story is the partisan fight for control of the U.S. Senate. Democrats need to take away five Republican seats to break the GOP stranglehold on Congress; California’s contested fight will be mostly a sideshow.
Following Senator Barbara Boxer’s retirement, the most intriguing question is whether the November runoff will pit two Democrats against each other, leaving the Republicans out of the money. Rep. Loretta Sanchez started out well behind front-running Attorney General Kamala Harris in fundraising and endorsements but still would skunk any of the three GOP wannabes running if the election were held today. Or even tomorrow.
Sanchez suffers from a bad case of foot-in-mouth disease, but Harris is far from a lock: Although she’s raised $6 million, nearly as much as any Senate candidate in the country, she’s also burned through almost half of it already, mostly on fundraising and other consultants, not to mention some startling bills for luxury car services, flights, and hotels, including one night at Washington, D.C.’s St. Regis for $1,886.
Talk about liberal Democratic spending.