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Lawmakers face budget strife, election challenges as they return to session
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SACRAMENTO (AP) — The state Legislature reconvened Wednesday for a year of diminished expectations set against a background of intense partisanship and election-year politics.
Lawmakers face a $13 billion budget deficit and several hot topics that include pension reform, high-speed rail and whether to keep an $11 billion water bond on the November ballot.
Gov. Jerry Brown and his fellow Democrats, who control both houses of the Legislature, already have said they do not plan to engage with Republicans in budget discussions after last year's failure to reach a compromise. Instead, they'll go to the ballot and ask voters to increase taxes on the wealthy and boost the state sales tax.
That approach could sour relations between the two parties even further, reducing the prospects for deal-making on other issues.
Party leaders already differ over the scope of reforms to public employee pensions and whether California should press ahead with a high-speed rail project as the cost has ballooned to $98 billion.
Also underscoring the legislative agenda will be lawmakers' preoccupation with their political careers in a year of fundamental change. A new top-two primary system and legislative maps drawn for the first time by an independent citizens commission lend a degree of uncertainty to lawmakers up for re-election this year.
Politics emerged immediately as two Democratic lawmakers introduced a resolution calling for a constitutional amendment to overturn the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, which held that corporations can spend unlimited sums to influence elections. The ruling generally is viewed as benefiting Republican candidates.
Assemblymen Michael Allen of Santa Rosa and Bob Wieckowski of Fremont submitted their resolution the same day Occupy protesters announced they would target more than 80 courthouses nationwide, including some federal courts in California, to protest the Supreme Court decision.
The Friday protests are scheduled one day before the second anniversary of the ruling, which has led to a surge in corporate campaign spending.
"A lot of us believe the Supreme Court ruling has thrown us out of balance," Allen said. "It's a system that's out of whack, and for democracy to function well, everybody needs a voice and not to have some voices drown out the others because of overwhelming resources."
Hawaii passed a similar resolution last year and other states are considering similar action, according to Public Citizen, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit advocacy group backing the resolution.
Voters will be watching lawmakers more closely because it's an election year, said Assemblyman Mike Morrell, R-Rancho Cucamonga.
Lawmakers will be running in new districts, and the top-two primary system means the top vote-getters in the June primary will go on to the November election, even if they are from the same political party. Proponents say that change could favor candidates who are more moderate because they will have to appeal to all voters during a primary, not just party die-hards.
"You're going to have legislators being cautious, which is a good thing." Morrell said.
Also Wednesday, Republicans in the Senate elected a new leader after Bob Dutton of Rancho Cucamonga stepped down because he is termed out of office after this year.
Sen. Bob Huff of Diamond Bar was selected to lead the 15 Republicans in the 40-member chamber. His chief rival, Sen. Joel Anderson of La Mesa, nominated Huff to be leader after it became apparent Huff had enough votes to prevail.
Democrats, including Gov. Jerry Brown, have said they expect to work around minority Republicans this year rather than negotiate for tax increases that Republicans adamantly oppose.
Huff immediately criticized Democrats for seeking higher taxes and said the majority party would have more success with its proposals at the ballot box if they sought bipartisan solutions.
Huff has been the lead budget negotiator for Senate Republicans. He said he has had good relations with Democratic lawmakers but added, "We definitely view the world in a different way."