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Unfinished business

If 2010 was a momentous year politically, it was also one in which not much seemed to get done, at least at the state and local levels — and much of the activity in Congress occurred during a last-minute flurry in the lame-duck session. That means there’s a lot of unfinished business, some of which will cause serious hardship if it isn’t dealt with in 2011.

Looking back, and forward, we offer a few priorities for Los Angeles, California and Washington.

City pension reform

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The city’s budget, much like the state’s, contains a time bomb. Generous public employee pension deals granted by past leaders and voters were based on a deeply flawed assumption: that the economy would keep growing at a brisk pace, allowing investments in government-held pension funds to rise fast enough to cover expenses. In bad years, and we’ve had a few lately, the city has to make up for shortfalls by dipping into its general fund. That has created a dire financial situation that is expected to get considerably worse unless pension reforms are approved.

In March, Los Angeles voters will be asked to consider a ballot measure that would change the terms of the city’s pension deals for newly hired police officers and firefighters. Rising pension and retiree healthcare costs for public safety workers are expected to consume 19% of the city budget within five years (up from 8.7% this year). Under the reform, new hires would get a lower percentage of their salary at retirement and would have to pay an additional 2% of their current salaries, on top of the 9% already contributed toward the pension fund, to cover retiree health costs. It’s a modest change that won’t go far enough to solve the problem, but it’s a start.

Meanwhile, the larger worry — pension costs for other municipal employees — hasn’t yet been addressed. Pension changes for newly hired civilian employees can be approved by the City Council without voter approval, but the council appears to be waiting to see what happens with the public safety employee measure before proceeding. Action is urgently needed; forecasters say overall retirement costs will account for one-third of the city’s general fund by 2015 if they keep growing at their current rate, which would take an enormous bite out of the public services L.A. provides. Decisions will be difficult and politically contentious, but they shouldn’t be put off any more.

State water plans

In 2009, something remarkable happened: After decades of feuding among farmers, cities, environmentalists, fishermen, liberals and conservatives over state water supplies, the Legislature approved a policy plan that came as close as Sacramento ever has to balancing these groups’ competing needs and wishes. Separately, lawmakers also put together an $11-billion bond package, subject to approval from voters, that would pay for projects to boost water supplies and improve the environment, including groundwater cleanup efforts in Los Angeles and dams throughout the state. There were many distasteful aspects of both the plan and the bond deal, but at least they represented the beginnings of a solution to supply problems that are growing worse as California’s population rises and its snowpack declines.

And then, in August, the bond deal came apart. Realizing that bonds would be a tough sell politically during the recession, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger decided to pull the water initiative off the November ballot and table it until 2012 (and unless the economy improves significantly by then, it may not appear until years later). Meanwhile, another, potentially even more vital water deal is in danger of unraveling.

State officials have been working for years on plans for an “alternative conveyance” for the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, from which Los Angeles derives 30% of its water. Heavy pumping of delta water has ruined the estuary’s ecosystem while failing to meet the demands of farmers and cities to the south. This month, state officials recommended construction of a $13-billion tunnel to carry water under the delta, which would theoretically boost water deliveries while also protecting delta fish and wildlife. But the water agencies that would pay for the project are skeptical that they would benefit, and environmentalists worry that the delta would still suffer. One Central California district has already pulled out of the planning process, and more may follow.

Incoming Gov. Jerry Brown will have his hands full trying to balance the state’s budget, but he’ll need to demonstrate strong and steady leadership on water issues to prevent the progress already made from evaporating.

Climate change

In 2009, the House passed the American Clean Energy and Security Act, better known as the cap-and-trade climate bill (better known on conservative media outlets as the “cap-and-tax bill”). Its aim was to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions 17% below 2005 levels by 2020, accomplishing this by capping emissions for big polluters and allowing them to trade carbon permits that would let them exceed the cap. Getting the bill passed in the Senate was one of President Obama’s key priorities, but he devoted far more energy to pushing through healthcare reform instead, and the climate bill languished. With environment-unfriendly Republicans taking control of the House in 2011, the odds of passing a similar measure are next to zero. But that doesn’t end all hope for progress.

Some Republican lawmakers have in the past supported the creation of a renewable energy standard — a requirement that the nation get a certain percentage of its electricity from renewable sources such as the sun and wind. The cap-and-trade bill contained such a standard, which might fare better in standalone legislation. Meanwhile, the Obama administration should take stronger action to regulate greenhouse gases than it has to date. Last week the Environmental Protection Agency set timetables for regulating emissions from the largest sources of greenhouse gases (oil refineries and coal-fired power plants), but court challenges and Republican attacks on EPA authority and climate science are on the way.

We hope Obama is better on defense than he was on offense when it comes to climate change. The longer the U.S. waits to address its fossil fuel addiction, the more damaging the effects of global warming will be and the more expensive it will become to fix the problem.

Terrorists and detainees

One of Obama’s first acts after being inaugurated was to pledge that the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, would be closed within a year. The prison remains open, and the president has been hampered in redeeming his promise by bipartisan opposition on Capitol Hill.

Before it adjourned, the 111th Congress approved a defense authorization bill that bars the Pentagon from spending any government funds on moving Guantanamo detainees to the United States for any reason. That legislation stymies not only the administration’s plan to close the prison but its intention to try Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and other alleged 9/11 conspirators in federal court.

It’s easy to blame Congress for the continued existence of what Obama rightly calls a recruiting tool for Al Qaeda. But the blame must be shared by the administration, which hasn’t made closing the facility a priority. Granted, Obama must confront a public outcry over transferring Guantanamo detainees to this country or trying suspected terrorists — even those arrested in the United States — in civilian court. That opposition was inflamed in November when a Tanzanian terrorist involved in the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies was acquitted of all but one of more than 280 charges.

The White House claimed victory in that trial because of the single conviction, but the president didn’t mount a major defense of the civilian system of justice. Meanwhile, the fact that Obama wants to try some detainees in military commissions — and some not at all — sends a mixed message.

Republican gains in the midterm election make it likely that Obama will face even more opposition in Congress both to closing Guantanamo and to trying accused terrorists in civilian courts. Obama and Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. need to redouble their efforts to convince Congress and the public that closing Guantanamo would help rehabilitate the image of the United States, as would trying even the worst accused terrorists in an open civilian court.


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