Years blur in Sacramento.
Every year, the governor makes a State of the State speech. Every year, the Legislature fights with the governor about something related to the budget. Every year, one or two silly bills garner far more attention than they deserve.
It’s the same old, same old. Except this year, it’s not. This was a year of historic elections and searing scandals. Here’s the top events in state politics – from a San Diego perspective – of 2014.
San Diego’s First Assembly Speaker
When Toni Atkins was elected Assembly speaker in March, she made headlines as the first lesbian to lead the Legislature’s lower house. But it was another first that mattered most to constituents in San Diego: She’s the first San Diegan to hold the top spot in the Assembly.
In a political environment where legislative leaders typically come from Los Angeles or the Bay Area, Atkins’ rise to power is a boon to America’s Finest City. Her stature means greater visibility for San Diego-specific issues in Sacramento and greater access to state funding.
And, really, her term is just starting. Atkins took the helm in early May, right when the election season was kicking into gear. The Legislature adjourned for the year at the end of August. She only had a short amount of time to show what she can do – and much of that time she was distracted with trying (unsuccessfully) to defend the Democrats’ super-majority in the Assembly.
Now Atkins will have a full year, unencumbered by electoral politics, to focus on her legislative agenda. What will that mean for San Diego? That’s one thing to watch for in 2015.
Scandals Swamp the State Senate
For people unfamiliar with life under the dome, it’s hard to appreciate how a single scandal can suck the air out of the building. Scandals make politicos nervous, and when they’re nervous, they usually decide to hide in their offices and do nothing (other than gossip about the scandal, of course). As a result, one well-publicized scandal can grind the Capitol to halt for weeks at a time.
Well the state Senate didn’t have just one scandal this year. It had four. You can imagine how that affected productivity.
First, Sen. Rod Wright, a Democrat from the Los Angeles area, was convicted of felony perjury and voter fraud; a jury found him guilty of lying about where he lived when he ran for office in 2008.
Then Sen. Ron Calderon, another Democrat from the Los Angeles area, was indicted on bribery charges. He’s accused of taking $100,000 in money and gifts to push legislation, among other things.
Then Sen. Leland Yee, a Democrat from the Bay Area, was indicted on charges of taking bribes from undercover FBI agents and conspiring to run guns in the Philippines.
Then a Senate sergeant-at-arms was fired after it was revealed he had used drugs before a gun fight at his house that killed one person more than a year earlier. Tony Beard, the Senate’s long-time chief sergeant-at-arms, resigned after Senate leadership learned he had concealed his employee’s drug use.
Shortly thereafter the Senate was embroiled in a full-fledged scandal over nepotism and favoritism in its hiring process.
You can say this, at least: Reporters had plenty of fodder this year.
Jerry Brown – Again
The governor’s race this year was hardly a contest – Republican challenger Neel Kashkari didn’t put up much of a fight. But the outcome was historic. Jerry Brown was elected to an unprecedented fourth term as California governor.
Brown, of course, is the son of one of California’s greatest governors, Pat Brown, a towering figure in the Golden State’s history. It’s widely believed that Jerry is chasing a legacy like his father’s, that he longs to hold a place in the history books.
Well, whatever his accomplishments in office, he’s succeeded. Unless term limits are changed, no one will ever have held California’s governor office as long as Jerry Brown.
Righting California’s Fiscal Ship
This story is still developing. Last month, the Department of Finance announced state revenues have come in more than a $1 billion above projections. After years of deficits and late budgets, the governor’s double-barreled strategy of getting voters to approve a tax increase and holding the line on new spending seems to be working.
But even before the department released its projections, California’s budget drama had started to look like something from another decade. This year, the Legislature passed another in a growing series of on-time budgets. Granted, this punctuality is due to the fact that voters agreed to change the rules so that the Legislature could pass budgets on a simple majority vote, which eliminated Republicans from negotiations.
But even so, the state budget and budget negotiations aren’t as headline-worthy as they once were. And for a state that was once mired in a perpetual fiscal morass, that’s a big story in anyone’s book.