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Capitol Journal

Asking Santa for politicians with guts

Gov. Brown and the Legislature should grow some spine to take on special interests and curb gifts

We can all dream, so here's my wish list for Christmas gifts.

If none show up under the tree, that's OK. I can wait. But I won't hold my breath.

I've wished for some of these presents previously but pretty much been blown off by Santa.

At the top of the list is a state Capitol with courage — the guts to confront head-on the state's most difficult and pressing problems. Examples:

• Our outdated tax system that badly needs restructuring for the 21st century. It leans too heavily on the roller-coaster incomes of the richest 1%, has too many property tax loopholes used by big corporations and doesn't apply the sales tax to services.

• A regulatory quagmire that turns entrepreneurs and investors away from California while benefiting business competitors and providing leverage for union organizers.

• An unsustainable public pension system that taxpayers can't afford and threatens to bust local governments. For future retirees, It needs to be less generous and more self-supporting.

• A University of California that is becoming almost unaffordable for the middle class. UC should be as great for the students as is it for highly paid administrators.

But to fight these battles, Gov. Jerry Brown and legislators would need to grow some backbone so they could stand up to powerful interests and, in UC's case, an elite establishment. That would mean Democrats not always bowing to labor and Republicans not consistently cowering before the anti-tax crowd.

Who knows, with one-third of the Assembly being rookies and a handful of senators new to the Legislature, it's possible there could be an infusion of boldness in 2015. One can hope.

Here's another wish at the top of the list: A more ethical Capitol. What a treat that would be.

For too many lawmakers, Christmas never ends.

"While Californians exchange gifts this month," the reform group Common Cause reported Tuesday, "it's worth taking a minute to reflect on the year-round, not-so-secret Santa happenings in the state capitol. What we're seeing is a growing trend in both the number of gifts and the total value of those gifts given by powerful special interest groups to state lawmakers."

Common Cause tallied the 2013 gifts — 2014's haven't yet been reported — and they totaled $840,000 in value. They included $580,000 for travel junkets. Also: $65,000 for sporting events and concerts and $108,000 for free meals.

Ask any politician, however, and you'll be assured with a straight face that none of this special interest largesse has any effect on how they vote. Ditto all those political contributions, some of which enhance their lifestyles. Right!

Actually, the Legislature — embarrassed by two senators being indicted on federal corruption charges — did pass three bills last session aimed at strengthening ethics laws and restricting gift-giving. Brown vetoed each one, showing how he has morphed from being a political reformer at the beginning of his career to a political cynic near the end.

Another nice holiday gift would be a more expansive governor willing to think outside the erector-set box on water development. Brown and the water bureaucrats and engineers are stuck back in the mid-20th century or earlier. Then they'd mutilate and steal from one region — Owens Valley, Yosemite National Park — to transfer water to a politically powerful dry area.

That's what Brown is attempting to do now in the bucolic Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta by burrowing two 40-foot-wide, 30-mile-long tunnels to carry fresh water under the estuary to southbound aqueducts. It's a $25-billion project, to be paid for through higher water rates.

The laudable goal is to create a more reliable north-south water delivery system. But modernizing the current system for a lot less money without radically mucking up the delta landscape, agriculture and recreation — as well as the winter home for migratory waterfowl — would seem to be worth seriously considering.

And when are Californians going to receive the gift of a massive seawater conversion kit. Desalination is the future and it's available for Brown, along with new-age programs started by Proposition 1: storm water capturing, waste water recycling and aquifer cleansing.

Those would be huge gifts.

There also are some small stocking-stuffers that would be good:

• A Dale Carnegie course in interpersonal relationships for the governor.

That could improve life for everyone around the Capitol. Brown gets his way through skillful use of power, not consideration and charm.

•-Legislating that focuses on more quality and less quantity.

The Legislature increased its bill production this year, probably because lawmakers were running for election and looking for easy news releases. They passed 1,074 bills. Perhaps 100 were arguably needed. The governor vetoed 143.

Each bill costs $20,000 on average to produce. That's the figure I was told years ago. Who knows what it is now.

•Legislating in sunshine.

Bills should be in print so the public can read them at least 72 hours before a final vote. Republicans have pushed this, probably because they don't have the clout to make last-minute backroom deals anyway. But it's worth trying regardless.

• Hustle through winter.

Legislators tend to hibernate through the cold months, not pushing their bills until late spring. Come on, give us our money's worth! Either stay home entirely or hit the Capitol running.

For muckraking reporters, however, politicians tend to be good gifts themselves — gifts that keep on giving.

george.skelton@latimes.com

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