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Lawmakers depart to prepare for fall election

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POSTED July 9, 2012 1:29 a.m.

SACRAMENTO  (AP) — California state lawmakers have adjourned for their summer recess after spending months unabashedly positioning themselves to their best competitive advantage going into the fall election campaign.

Democrats who control both the Senate and Assembly hammered through a state budget and protections for homeowners facing foreclosures, brushing aside Republicans’ opposition.

They passed a law and delayed a controversial water bond to give top ballot position to a tax initiative backed by Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown, though the ballot engineering faces a legal challenge. Wealthy Los Angeles civil rights attorney Molly Munger argues in her lawsuit that the maneuvering means her own proposed tax increase to benefit schools may be lost in the clutter of 11 measures facing voters in November.

Outnumbered Republicans countered with impassioned floor speeches criticizing the budget as half-baked and the mortgage protections as a danger to California’s fragile housing market. And they blasted union-backed Democrats for failing to rein in public employee pensions that Republicans say are bankrupting the state.

They left Sacramento last week after approving funds to begin construction of a high-speed rail connection between northern and southern California, with upgrades to urban mass transit systems. They acted despite polls showing the $68 billion project is increasingly unpopular with voters.

Legislators return from a monthlong vacation Aug. 6 to take up the pension debate and other legislation before adjourning for good on Aug. 31.

“I really believe we’re beginning to build some momentum around here to carry it through to the end of session. That’s what will maximize success in November,” Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, said as lawmakers prepared to leave town.

At stake in the election is the chance for Democrats to win a two-thirds super majority in the Senate, though they are expected to fall short of total dominance in the Assembly. With two additional senators, Democrats would no longer need Republican support to approve tax increases, pass emergency legislation, reject the governor’s vetoes or change Senate rules.

But Steinberg said the more important issue is persuading voters to approve Brown’s proposal to avoid more deep state spending cuts by increasing the state income tax for seven years and sales tax for four years. And that requires convincing voters that government is reforming itself by passing on-time budgets, limiting wasteful spending and improving their lives. Steinberg said he doesn’t believe funding the high-speed rail system will deter voters from supporting the tax increase.

State employee unions have gone along to the extent that most have accepted furloughs that will cut their hours and pay by nearly 5 percent this fiscal year. They want Brown’s tax measure to pass, while they work to defeat another ballot measure that would limit their collection of payroll deductions for political purposes.

But they and Democratic lawmakers are balking at Brown’s proposal to move workers to a hybrid pension system in which defined benefits are combined with a 401(k)-style plan commonly used in the private sector. They also want to ease Brown’s plan to raise the retirement age by letting workers retire before age 67 at reduced pension rates.

Steinberg touted the Legislature’s approval of the largest reshuffling of state agencies, boards and commissions in recent state history. Brown’s reorganization will change the way the state oversees economic development, consumer services, housing, real estate and natural resources, among others. Aside from limiting pension abuses, lawmakers also plan to make it tougher to sue small businesses for violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act, cheaper to buy college textbooks, and to change the way high schools educate and evaluate students.

“Over time I think you will see renewed confidence in state government,” Steinberg said after Democrats sent Brown a budget chock full of automatic cuts to school and university funding if voters fail to pass the governor’s tax measure. A Field Poll released last week found that nearly three-quarters of voters dislike the looming trigger cuts.

Count political scientist Jack Pitney among the unconvinced.

“No Californian who draws breath can actually believe the Legislature is acting in the public interest,” said Pitney, who teaches at Claremont McKenna College in Los Angeles County. “They’re trying to avoid doing things that actually catch the public’s attention or get them in trouble with interest groups. They realize there’s no way they can attract a favorable image of the Legislature, but they can at least stay out of the public’s mind.”

Senate Minority Leader Bob Huff, R-Diamond Bar, also said Democrats’ message won’t wash, based in part on what he called “the crankiness of the electorate.”

Republican legislative candidates have an advantage because they are seen as better business managers and proponents of limited government and jobs creation, he said.

“A lot of the stuff we do is inside baseball. The bottom line is the economy is still suffering, we have a budget that is predicated on taxes, and then there’s this disingenuous play of whacking education if they don’t pass,” Huff said. “The people understand that we just have to live within our means. I think that’s a message that will resonate.”

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