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Lobbying to begin on bond spending

Times Staff Writer

California’s newly elected legislators, who will be sworn in today, could find themselves distracted from such issues as healthcare and overcrowded prisons by a rich opportunity to bag goodies for their districts.

As they consider other pressing needs, they also will decide how to spend some of the $42.7 billion that voters recently agreed to borrow for housing, levee, road, school and water projects.

Much of the money is committed to existing programs run by agencies such as Caltrans and the Department of Water Resources. And it will be spent gradually over decades. But the Legislature has discretion over most of it.

In appropriating the money either through the annual budget or through separate legislation, lawmakers could leave the spending details to bureaucrats. Or they could dictate details, favor one region over another and send money to pet projects -- the “pork” that can make or break budget deals.

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The lawmakers who soon will write legislation to disburse the money say they will do so with care.

“That’s when mischief begins,” said Assembly Republican leader Mike Villines of Clovis, whose caucus’ votes are needed to pass the state budget, the likely vehicle for authorizing most bond expenditures.

Democrats say they won’t abide a “porkfest,” either.

“You’re not going to the butcher,” Senate leader Don Perata (D-Oakland) said he told his charges.

“What I don’t want to do is make the voters at any point feel there was a bait and switch,” said Perata, who led the crafting of the bond measures last spring. “Our most important mission now is to show that those monies are being properly used.”

Still, all over the state, local and regional governments are getting ready to flex political muscle.

“I look forward to working with the Los Angeles County delegation to ensure that our region receives its fair share of funding from these measures,” Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina, chairwoman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority board, said the day after voters passed the bond measures.

Like other transportation agencies throughout the state, the MTA has a slate of projects for which to seek bond funding, including the widening of Interstate 5 from the Orange County line to the 605 Freeway.

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In the rugged district of Assemblywoman Patty Berg (D-Eureka), trucks with long trailers are banned on every road that reaches Del Norte County. Her staff said she would request money to make changes that would allow trucks hauling cattle and Home Depot supplies to legally navigate the district.

Sen.-elect Mark Ridley-Thomas, a Los Angeles Democrat, said he would ask for money to repair the brick masonry around Exposition Park; modernize classrooms and laboratories at Trade Tech and West Los Angeles community colleges; and replace diesel-spewing school buses.

Before any of the $19.9-billion transportation bond can be spent, the Legislature must appropriate it. But Perata predicted there would be little tampering because so many highway projects are ready to go.

“There are so many unmet needs out there that have been approved and are awaiting funding,” he said, “people who want to step in front of the line will not be able to.”

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Similarly, the $10.4-billion school facilities bond is less vulnerable to political massaging because most of the money will flow directly into existing accounts for building and modernizing schools.

But the $4.1-billion flood-prevention bond and almost half of the $2.9-billion housing bond must be appropriated by the Legislature. The housing bond, in particular, dedicates dollars in a way that some legislative staffers have described as a “blank slate,” including $850 million to encourage “infill incentive grants” and $200 million for “housing-related parks grants.”

And the Legislature wields great latitude over most of a $5.4-billion water and parks bond that was written by environmental groups and supported by legislative leaders and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Kevin de Leon, a Democrat newly elected to represent a Los Angeles Assembly district including Echo Park, said he would introduce a bill today to ensure that money for parks projects is awarded based on need -- not political power.

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“You want to have a transparent, objective process,” he said, noting that L.A. is one of the nation’s most park-starved cities.

The governor can veto any bill he doesn’t like, including those allocating bond money. His administration will be watching closely, said Department of Finance spokesman H.D. Palmer.

“We’re working on accountability measures,” he said, “whereby we can have confidence that these funds will be spent in a manner consistent with what the voters approved.”

Spending money to expand highways, buy parkland, repair levees and replace sooty buses promises to be a happy diversion for state lawmakers, who face some intractable problems.

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“This is a remarkable opportunity we’re not going to get for decades in California,” said Mike Feuer, a former Los Angeles city councilman who will be sworn in today to represent a West Los Angeles Assembly district.

Lawmakers can begin laying claim to the funds starting today, when 36 new Assembly members will be sworn in, making up nearly half the 80-member body. Of the 11 new senators, all but one, former Los Angeles City Councilman Alex Padilla, have served in the Assembly.

After a ceremonial and housekeeping session, lawmakers will disband until business gets underway Jan. 3, although they can introduce bills anytime after they are sworn in.

Democratic leaders and the Republican governor say they hope to maintain the last session’s bipartisan momentum. Last summer, they struck deals to raise the minimum wage, regulate emissions linked to global warming and offer poor Californians cheaper prescription drugs.

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The political dynamics are different now -- Schwarzenegger is no longer running for reelection in a largely Democratic state -- but other pressures may still foster teamwork, said UC Berkeley political scientist Bruce Cain.

Schwarzenegger will want to create a legacy or a platform from which to run for the U.S. Senate, Cain said. Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles), and Perata, both of whom will be forced from the Legislature by term limits in 2008, will also be looking for a legacy, he said.

“There’s enough motivation, it seems to me, to get some stuff done,” Cain said.

Nunez, Perata and Schwarzenegger have all said they want to extend health benefits to the estimated 6 million uninsured Californians.

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And they agree that the state’s overcrowded prisons -- now housing more than 15,000 inmates in gymnasiums, hallways and triple-decker bunks -- need an overhaul. But extending health insurance costs money, and the state’s budget shortfall is estimated at $5.5 billion.

And Democrats and Republicans appear at a standoff on prisons: Democrats insist on tweaking the state’s sentencing laws as part of any prison reform, while Republicans want to build more prisons.

Old fights will echo in the Capitol in the coming year too: Assemblyman Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), for example, said he would introduce -- for a third time -- a bill to legalize same-sex marriage.

Last year, such a bill passed the Legislature but Schwarzenegger vetoed it. Leno said he will file the new bill today.

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nancy.vogel@latimes.com


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