Productive lawmakers can thank a retooled system

California Legislature
Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, left, and Sen. Alex Padilla walk out of the Senate chambers together Friday. Both are leaving the Legislature because of term limits.
(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

It was a moderately productive two-year session that the Legislature wrapped up at the witching hour Saturday. Credit mainly voter-approved reforms. This is a new era in Sacramento.

But another factor also helped greatly: the devastating drought.

You’ve heard the political maxim: Never let a serious crisis go to waste. The lawmakers didn’t. They passed not only a major water bond proposal, but hotly contested legislation to regulate California’s declining groundwater for the first time.


Hannah-Beth Jackson: In George Skelton’s Capitol Journal column in Section A on Sept. 1, California legislator Hannah-Beth Jackson was called an assemblywoman. She is a state senator. —


Legislators also capitalized on tragedy. Fatal shootings provided the inspiration to pass bills aimed at disarming potentially dangerous psychotic gun owners and to help police distinguish between real and toy firearms.

Meanwhile, embarrassing corruption scandals in the Senate led to some modest political reforms.

And, of course, an improving national economy coupled with Gov. Jerry Brown’s 2012 soak-the-rich tax increase meant the governor and legislators could resume smiling and spending, rather than crankily cutting.

Also, kudos for termed-out Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), who always has been obsessed with deal-cutting and “getting something done” — most anything, but especially on mental health.


It may take awhile to completely sort out everything that ruling Democrats produced in the final hours while nurturing some so-called mushroom bills — they grew in the dark — before groggily calling it quits just after 3 a.m.

But let’s back up: The productivity was mostly due to a revamping of the system. It was the old gridlock-inducing system that had been causing legislative dysfunction.

First, four years ago, the California electorate lowered the legislative vote requirement for a budget from two-thirds to a simple majority. Presto: no more summer-long stalemates.

The voters also approved a “top-two” open primary system that tends to produce more moderate legislators from both parties, reducing polarization. And voters turned legislative redistricting over to an independent citizens’ commission, creating more competition.

Lastly, starting with legislators first elected in 2012, term limits were loosened to offer lawmakers more time in one house to acquire expertise.

All that said, the big water package never would have passed without the historic drought.

Brown had resisted allowing any water bond on the November ballot, fearing it would conflict with his reelection pitch about being the great debt fighter. But the drought made it politically impossible to ignore the state’s chronic water needs.

The governor did, however, insist on a lower bond size, $7.5 billion, than sought by Democrats. And he acquiesced to Republican demands by including $2.7 billion for dam construction.


But most Republicans — and all Central Valley farm belt legislators — fiercely fought the drive by Brown and Democratic leaders for groundwater regulation. California has been the only Western state not to manage groundwater.

“I often hear around here that we should be more like Texas,” Assemblyman Roger Dickinson (D-Sacramento), a groundwater bill author, told Republicans during the floor debate. “For those of you who believe that, here’s our chance.” Anti-regulation Texas recently began managing groundwater.

In the Senate, one Republican argued that groundwater regulation is a government overreach and all that is really needed is more reservoirs and rain.

“You say all we need is rain,” heatedly responded Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara). “If any of you have a direct line to the source of that rain, I suggest this is the time to make a phone call.”

Another groundwater bill author, Sen. Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills), asserted that “it’s survival of the fittest out there” on the farms, “where some property owners can’t financially compete” against their wealthy neighbor who can drill deeper wells and suck up the scarce water.

“This bill recognizes water as a property right, but also recognizes that the right has to be shared with your neighbors in the same underground basin.”

The legislation would give local governments 20 years — a generation — to manage groundwater so it’s sustainable. Only if they fail will the state step in.

Brown is expected to sign the legislation, although he hasn’t said so publicly.


This was much less of a partisan political brawl than a traditional water fight among regions.

Likewise, the gun battle was mostly about 2nd Amendment ideology.

Democrats sent Brown a bill that would authorize a “gun violence restraining order” against anyone considered a danger to himself or others. It wouldn’t have passed unless a disturbed man three months ago had gone on a rampage, killing six and wounding 13 others near UC Santa Barbara.

“There are some who will use every tragedy to take guns away from law-abiding citizens,” Sen. Jim Nielsen (R-Gerber) claimed during debate.

You bet, if they’re nut cases.

Likewise, the Legislature passed a bill requiring BB and pellet guns to be marked with fluorescent colors — only after a 13-year-old Santa Rosa boy was killed by sheriff’s deputies who mistook his plastic air gun for an AK-47.

The Assembly, however, rejected a bill that would have enabled the state to run computer checks on ammunition buyers to see whether they had rap sheets. Guess that bill must await a mass killing by some criminal after he stockpiles ammo.

The Legislature also passed a bill phasing in a ban on single-use plastic bags at supermarkets and pharmacies and requiring that the stores charge at least 10 cents for a paper bag. So what’s next — Sacramento setting the price for paper towels?

This Legislature also expanded access to paid sick days off, diverted more school money to disadvantaged kids and increased a tax break for California-filmed movies.

But the governor and Legislature still are afraid to tackle two very tough but crucial issues: tax and regulatory reform.

The new system hasn’t emboldened them enough for that.

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