Top tales: 2013’s key political yarns

State Capitol, Sacramento. (Photo: David Monniaux)

For the followers of California politics, non-election years usually are yawns. Not so 2013: One would be hard pressed to find a year with more hot-button events fraught with statewide political ramifications, and even local stories — the trials in Bell, for example — capturing wide attention.

Here’s our roundup of the year’s top state political tales, a subjective compilation to be sure but one which was fun to put together. It was more fun to do when we had a print edition, but you can’t have everything.

The Calderon Raid – An FBI raid in June on the Capitol offices of state Sen. Ron Calderon, D-Montebello, disclosed a corruption investigation of the Capitol with links to southern California. The raid was the first since an August night in 1988, when agents with warrants searched several offices in a “sting” that wound up sending several lawmakers to prison. The basic FBI playbook doesn’t seem to have changed in 25 years: Then, undercover FBI agents pretended to be businessmen looking for tax breaks for their shrimp processing plant. This time around, an undercover FBI agent pretended to be a film producer looking for tax credits for the movie industry.

But other things are different. A dramatic picture of the Calderon probe was first reported, much to the chagrin of California-based media, by Al Jazeera America, the cable TV network. The story disclosed a 124-page FBI affidavit that detailed the elements of the sting, including $88,000 in purported bribes, meetings with the lawmaker and associates, a fun time in Vegas, the hiring of a family member at the studio and the hiring of the undercover agent’s “girlfriend” (actually an FBI agent) in a Capitol office. The investigation is continuing: Calderon has not been charged, and complained in federal court that the affidavit was deliberately leaked to smear him. Ron is part of a well-entrenched political family, started by brother Charles in the 1980s, continued by brother Tom who has since dropped his plans to run for a Senate seat and now represented by Ian Calderon, the young freshman Assembly member.

This story, as they say, has legs.

The State Budget – News about the state budget has been so bad for so long with a litany of deficits, shortfalls and gloomy projections, that an uplifting report is treated with suspicion. Barring surprises, California should end the 2014-15 fiscal year with a multibillion-dollar surplus and the outlook for more surpluses through 2020 is definitely positive, says the Legislative Analyst.

“The state has reached a point where its underlying expenditures and revenues are roughly in balance. With the exception of education funding, the remainder of state General Fund spending reflects a baseline budget,” the LAO noted. Another recession, a sharp spike in unemployment and a major increase in welfare payments could quickly sour the picture, but for now at least California is better off fiscally than it has been in years.

But political fights in Sacramento are as intense over fiscal excess as they are over scarcity, and spending the wrong way can lead to major problems, as in 1999-2001. The debate over spending part or all of the $6 billion in projected reserves already is under with Assembly proposing an estimated $3.6 billion in spending that includes Kindergarten for 4-year-olds. Maybe history’s lessons will be heeded as the budget debate cranks up in January.

State government may be happy, but out in the real world, times are not as good. Unemployment stands at 8.7 percent, down nearly four percentage points from the peak during the recession, but still high. Property values are soaring, which is good for the owners but not so good for people looking to buy an affordable home. College tuition is high, schools are crowded and property crime seems to be on the increase.

But it could be worse.

The Supermajorities – In January, the new legislative session reflected a remarkable fact: Democrats exercised two-thirds control of both houses of the California Legislature for the first time since the 19th century, an amazing feat and one that caught many by surprise, especially in the Assembly.

What with the vicissitudes of politics – resignations, special elections, scandals, demographic shifts, etc. – nobody knows how long these razor-thin Democratic supermajorities will last. The 40-member Senate and 80-member Assembly each have one more than two-thirds, 28 in the Senate and 55 in the Assembly, and the battles are on to change the equation.

But the Democrats are solidly in the saddle, and not just in the Legislature: Gov. Brown is a Democrat and all of the major statewide constitutional officers – treasurer, lieutenant governor, controller, attorney general and secretary of state — are Democrats.

In fact, only two slots are Republican and both are on the four-member Board of Equalization, a powerful but obscure panel that administers myriad taxes, including sales and use taxes, and serves as a tax appeals board. Interestingly enough, there has been a rise in the public’s view of the Legislature, with 40 percent giving the contentious body a positive approval rating, a dramatic increase from years past and some four times the approval level given to Congress.

The Bullet Train – Headline clichés about the High Speed Rail Authority being temporarily “off-track” or “derailed” are over-used, but so what? That’s exactly what’s happened to the $68 billion project, including most recently an adverse court decision on the project’s initial bond funding and a move by the federal regulators to deny the HSRA’s request for an exemption from an environmental review. It is unlikely that either decision will stop the project – state officials said they can push ahead with $3.24 billion in federal funds, for now — but more delays appear likely.

And opposition seems to be solidifying, especially in the Central Valley, home of the first segments of the huge project, where local officials up and down the proposed route wonder if train is worth it and whether it will hurt their communities.

The goal is to link San Francisco and L.A. through the Central Valley by 2028, but opposition led by Republicans is strong along the Valley section of the route, where locals question the financing, the wisdom of the HSRA and the impacts of the project on their own property markets, among other complaints.

California’s high-speed rail program has been hit with negative reports for years, but the project is still alive and kicking despite lawsuits, political opposition and fears of cost over-runs. Highs-speed rail officials say the project will be completed and that the bullet train is, uh, on track.

Patient Dumping – It seemed inconceivable: Nevada, to save money, gave hundreds of mentally ill patients one-way tickets to California, leaving them to fend for themselves once they arrived in the Golden State, the Sacramento Bee reported in the best example of enterprise reporting this year in California.

The patient-dumping scheme unraveled after one of those patients, James Flavy Coy Brown, became disoriented and suicidal after a 15-hour ride from Las Vegas to Sacramento. “Brown said he knew no one in Sacramento and that Rawson-Neal (Nevada) doctors advised him to dial 911 once he arrived in the city,” the Bee noted.

Not surprisingly, public outrage followed after the reports appeared, lawsuits were filed, patients’ families were angered and government regulators got into the fray. San Francisco, which knows a thing or two about homeless people without care, filed a suit against Nevada to recoup $500,000 it said it had spent on Nevada’s transportees.

“All of the patients were transported without escorts,” and often without “adequate food, water and medication” to sustain them during lengthy bus trips. Because the hospital failed to make proper arrangements for their care, many of the patients “ended up on the streets of their destination cities without funds or means of support, shelter or medication,” the S.F. suit contended.

Affordable Care Act – From first to last, putting into effect the federal health care reform law in California was the single biggest, continuous story in the state, with huge dollars at stake, the health of millions of people in the balance and the financial impact on businesses and consumers uncertain.

Covered California, the portal to the new health insurance marketplace, is up and running with some glitches. Compared with the turmoil in Washington, DC, over the ACA, California seems serene, largely because federal dollars are assured through 2015.

The successes have been real: California’s signups account for nearly a third of all those nationwide — a remarkable fact given that California has about 12 percent of the population and a number of states are not participating.

The success of the ACA in California also may be impacted — at least indirectly — by a ballot initiative on the November 2014 ballot in which voters will be asked whether the state insurance commissioner should set rates for health insurers. The current commissioner, Dave Jones, also is up for

The Twin Tunnels – Nobody does paperwork like the state of California. The latest example: 34,000 pages of turgid prose and graphs describing the plan to drill tunnels through the Delta to carry more water from Northern California water to the south.

Amid the uncertainty of legal challenges, fiscal issues and changes in the parameters of the project – such as reducing the length of the 35-mile-long tunnels down to 30 miles – a final decision is likely by the end of 2014 on the $25 billion project to move more Northern California water to the south and, while doing that, put in place environmental protections for the sprawling estuary east of San Francisco.

The Brown administration is pushing for the project, and that’s no surprise: More than 30 years ago, the governor during an earlier term signed into a law a measure to construct a canal around the edge of the delta that would convey excess water from the north to the Central Valley and Southern California. Voters overturned the law in an emotional referendum. Since then, the drive for more water southward has been a third rail in California politics – until now.

A key advocate for the project is Jerry Meral, a top deputy at DWR who plans to step down by the end of the year. It’s uncertain how his departure will play out in the ultimate fate of the project.

The Fair Political Practices Commission – Under former Chair Ann Ravel, who made good on her vow not to sweat the details or fritter away resources on small fry, the state’s political watchdog panel established a reputation for successfully going after the big guns – topped by an unprecedented $1 million fine against a pair of political nonprofits that poured some $11 million in covert cash into California during the final days of the November 2012 elections in order to back a ballot proposition to curb unions’ clout. The measure was defeated.

The groups, who declined to disclose the source of the funds, were linked to the network maintained by the Koch brothers, a pair of politically conservative activists who have spread political money around the nation.

The FPPC also ordered the campaign committees to disgorge $15 million, an unlikely prospect given the clear potential here for years of litigation. The FPPC’s action, accompanied by the state attorney general’s, culminated a year-long investigation.

Immediately after announcing the FPPC’s enforcement action, Ravel left as President Obama’s pick to join the Federal Election Commission.

The commission, in another high-profile case, levied $40,500 in fines against California Strategies and three of its prominent partners — Jason Kinney, Rusty Areias and Winston Hickox — for failing to register as lobbyists even though they directly lobbied members of the Legislature on behalf of clients.

In an agreement with the FPPC staff, they acknowledged the violations and agreed to pay the fines.

The Bay Bridge Bolts — When 32 of 192 huge bolts used in the Bay Bridge reconstruction were found to be faulty in March, the outcry was immediate: Was the $6.4 billion project at risk? Would the bridge open as scheduled? Was the public right to be wary? Was this the end of western civilization as we know it?

The answer was no, probably, no and no, but it was a good news story anyway and transfixed readers for months.

The rebuilt span, festooned with lights, is up and running, and thus far the reviews are good. The story isn’t over yet, of course: Investigations and reviews have yet to be completed, and there are more questions in at least one news account about the quality of inspections and integrity of the steel.

But we’ll leave those for next year.

The State Parks — It started out at the Parks and Recreation Department with a Sacramento Bee story last year about the mishandling of a few hundred thousand dollars, but the tale quickly grew. Ultimately, the paper noted, it turned out that the department had socked away some $20.5 million for more than a decade, concealing — and not using — the money even as the state was forced to close parks.

Parks Director Ruth Coleman resigned, quickly, taking the fall for long-standing problems at the department. Probes and reviews were launched, the state attorney general and state auditor got into the act, there was a major shakeup at the department.

In January, the state attorney general’s investigation found that numerous high-ranking officials at parks headquarters in Sacramento made a decision to keep the money concealed from state finance officials for as long as 13 years.

“It is clear,” the investigation states, “that by no later than 2003, and perhaps as early as 1999, the failure to accurately report all SPRF monies … became conscious and deliberate.”


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