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Warning: Thorny Road Ahead

A Look at the Key Factors Shaping a Tumultuous Political Year


Thursday, January 5, 2012

Letting loose a little Latin lexicon, Jerry Brown offered up some context from the classics to describe the political challenges facing Sacramento in 2012.

Ad Astra per Aspera,” the Jesuit-trained governor intoned in a look-ahead interview about the legislative session that began this week.

Chatting with public radio’s ace Capitol correspondent John Myers, the governor translated the expression as, “To the stars through the thorns.”

Capitol Letters

Derived from Virgil’s Aeneid, the phrase has been employed by everyone from David Bowie and Doogie Howser to the state of Kansas and the South African air force to describe the hard work and hardship needed to achieve difficult goals. The citation seemed apt, given the looming political tribulations and torments of a year in which campaign combat, death, and taxes are just a few of the difficult matters that Californians will face. Here is a look at some of the thornier issues:

ELECTION BATTLES: The vast amount of posturing and pandering that shape any routine election year in Sacramento will be redoubled in 2012, as 100 state lawmakers are confronted by two dramatic changes in the political landscape: 1) New Assembly and state Senate districts, drawn for the first time by an independent commission instead of legislators themselves; 2) A new primary election system designed to diminish the influence of party in selecting Sacramento representatives.

Good government reformers sponsored both voter-approved policies in a bid to reduce partisan polarization by boosting the campaigns of more moderate candidates; the shifts also improve Democratic chances of winning crucial two-thirds majorities in either or both house. Local angle: Republicans are challenging the new senate districts, both in court and with a proposed referendum, which could complicate matters in the race for Santa Barbara’s new 19th District.

TAX INCREASES: Sacramento again faces the decade-long problem of a chronic, intractable budget deficit, this time amounting to about $13 billion in the spending plan the governor proposed this week. While by-now-routine struggles will unfold over cuts in education and health care and social welfare programs for children and the poor, there is a major new element: Brown is campaigning for state tax increases, a notion that has long been anathema for California politicians.

The governor is pushing a ballot initiative to hike the sales tax one-half cent while increasing income taxes on those who make $250,000 or more annually. Heads up: At least two other well-funded groups are aiming measures to soak the rich at the November election. Brown is lobbying furiously for sponsors to drop them, arguing that voters are all but guaranteed to reject a slate of multiple tax increases.

PENSIONS: Calculating that voters are also more likely to approve higher taxes if Sacramento addresses public unhappiness about public employee benefits, Brown has put forth a pension reform plan to raise the retirement age and lower payments for newly hired government workers.

But Democratic lawmakers, backed by union allies, say the governor’s plan is too draconian, while many GOP legislators say it doesn’t go nearly far enough. Political complication: Unions are gearing up to fight at least two other November initiatives. One proposes far more sweeping pension system changes that would affect current workers in restructuring the system; the other would end labor’s practice of using dues withheld from the pay of unionized employees for political purposes.

Beyond these conflicts, clashes are expected about a host of other big money issues, from multibillion-dollar proposals to build a statewide high-speed rail system and expand the State Water Project to various budget-balancing measures that range from imposing a strict state spending cap to taxing internet gambling.

That’s not to mention at least 75 (!) other initiatives in various stages of qualifying for the ballot, some more serious than others, to do everything from ending the death penalty to outlawing abortions for teenagers.

“Here’s the dilemma,” Brown told reporters last week. “People don’t want cuts in education and health care and policing, but they don’t want to pay taxes, either. And there’s a type of cognitive dissonance where people want incompatible objectives. So the challenge for today’s politics is to clarify the choices.”

Ad Astra per Aspera.

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