Too Much But Not Enough

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A cease-fire to the water wars that have lasted for most of California's modern existence. A prison overcrowding problem that's about to be yanked from state control by federal judges. A broad expansion of California's commitment to sources of renewable energy.

All that in ten days. Really?

The regular legislative session of the California Legislature is about to expire -- some would say mercifully -- after a year that's been marked by one crisis after another. And yet the policy 'to-do list' still includes some of the toughest nuts to crack.

But the man who is at the center of the Legislature's plan of attack says he's going to try to do it all... in part, because there's no alternative.

"It's really a Catch-22," said Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg during this morning's biweekly media briefing.

He was responding to a question I asked about the public's growing perception that the Legislature can't do its job, especially after two budget deals unraveled, a prison deal collapsed, and legislative debates in 2009 that have often wandered into things seemingly not mission critical.

But as Steinberg pointed out, it's a no-win at this point: either decree that some tasks simply can't be finished in 2009 and have the pundits scream... or... promise to tackle everything, finish only a subset of those things, and still watch the collective tsk-tsk of the public at life under the Capitol dome.

"It would be a mistake to raise expectations unduly and not be able to deliver," said Steinberg. "But on the other hand, I think to some degree a lot of people don't even think we're trying."

He's probably right. Polls show that the public's disgust with its 120-member legislative branch of government is close to an all-time high. And just over the horizon... still quiet but ever-so-perceptibly picking up steam... is a ballot initiative to thrust the California Legislature back into the 1960s as a part-time institution.

The Senate leader, recognizing the task at hand, seems resolute in his desire to attempt a legislative Hail Mary. "I would rather try and have some bumps in the road," he said, "than play it careful and cautious and not try at all."

That being said, Steinberg is nonetheless prioritizing his list in the final hours of the regular session. And that apparently means prison reform will be placed a little off of center court, giving way to the hard work of crafting a water package that meets muster with environmentalists, thirsty citizens, and agricultural interests.

Shooting for what he said would be a "signature" victory, the pro tem will chair the new joint water conference committee that begins its work this afternoon. The pragmatic Sacramento Democrat said there's middle ground to be found on things like a Delta-bypassing canal (as long as the science pans out, he said) and paying for water improvement (some kind of bond measure, but not the $11 billion or so some desire).

But Steinberg can also be an idealist, as the prison debate appears to have proved. In what may be his most revealing comments to date, this morning the Senate leader described the discussions that led his house to send a prison package to the Assembly which was dead on arrival.

The day before the Senate took up the more expansive prison proposal, Steinberg says he laid out all of the pitfalls to Senate Democrats in a private meeting:

"I said (to them), 'It is likely that the Assembly will not have the votes for the full package'," explained Steinberg. And he gave Senate Dems three choices: delay action until something changed in the lower house, approve a watered-down version that he said would "anticipate" what might be palatable, or approve the larger prison package and take their chances.

Steinberg says his fellow Democrats "overwhelmingly" chose option #3, though given the close vote it's hard to believe he didn't have a lot to do with the choice.

(Listen to the full description of that meeting below)

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In the end, it does seem true that critics of the Legislature will jump on whatever happens from here on out. Also true, though, is that the Legislature could have engaged sooner on the remaining big issues, even while it grappled with the budget crisis.

But that's a debate for another time. Right now, the clock is about to run out... the crowd is frenzied... and the only chance to win the game is a 4th-and-long Hail Mary.

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About John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new multimedia California Politics & Government Desk.  He has covered California politics for most of the past two decades -- serving previously as Sacramento bureau chief for KQED News and, most recently, as political editor for KXTV News10 (ABC) in Sacramento. He moderated the only gubernatorial debate of 2014, and was named one of the nation's top statehouse reporters by The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.

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