Rather than the standard year in review, it's hopefully more worthwhile to make note of a few of the sagas from the world of California government and politics in 2009 that are likely to keep playing out long past the switching of calendars... in a sense, gifts that keep on giving.
So while you rest up from the merrymaking, consider these nine stories to watch in 2010.
The Rule of 27: It's almost a given these days that every year under the Capitol dome will feature another long chapter of the "Which Republicans will vote for a new state budget?" game. Democrats decry the two-thirds mandate as an invitation for legislative extortion from the GOP legislators who they must cajole; Republicans defend it as the only way they ever get their issues heard in a statehouse where Dems often seem to dismiss GOP proposals out of hand.
Regardless, the rule is (for now) a political reality. And at the risk of minimizing this year's fight for 54 budget votes in the Assembly, the real drama is likely to be over getting 27 budget votes in the Senate. That's because one way or another, it's doubtful that Republican Abel Maldonado will be voting for any more Democratically guided budgets come springtime. If the Santa Maria pol gets confirmed for the job Governor Schwarzenegger tapped him for -- lieutenant governor -- Dems will have to search for another Reep to cast Vote #27 (and given how few Republicans there are in the upper house, that's no easy task). But if Maldo doesn't become the 'Lite Guv' -- in other words, if Democrats tell him to go pound sand and reject the nomination -- it's hard to imagine he'd be inclined to cast any more tough budget votes in the final two years of his Senate term.
As such, the odds seem to keep growing that the Maldonado nomination is, in fact, fully joined to the task of erasing at least the current year deficit of about $6 billion. "That's a very good analysis," said Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg when presented with the idea in an interview last week. Of course, Steinberg also played his cards close to the vest in the rest of that conversation when it came to discussing the actual fate of Maldo's nomination.
Oil Drilling Redux: We haven't heard the last of the controversial proposal for new oil drilling in state waters, a project known as Tranquillon Ridge. It was big news in both environmental and budget circles in 2009, after being nixed by the State Lands Commission and then resurrected -- unsuccessfully -- by the Schwarzenegger administration as a way of adding revenue to the depleted state coffers. Word has it we're going to see the T-Ridge oil plan in next week's new Schwarzenegger budget plan. The deal, if enacted, would send a $100 million prepaid royalty to the state. While published leaks say the Governor is counting on $200 million from T-Ridge, a source familiar with the proposal (who didn't want to be identified without first seeing the budget plan) says the offer is still $100 million... which would seem to imply Schwarzenegger is budgeting on actual oil profits, too, in the fiscal year.
Regardless, this one's still a political live wire. The original proposal created some unusual splits among enviros, but there was unanimous environmental opposition once it was injected into the budget debate. The oil company behind the deal, PXP, launched a big PR effort in late 2009 to try and resuscitate things and hasn't backed off. T-Ridge will first get a new wave of attention in just a few weeks during the Maldonado confirmation hearings -- because the next lieutenant governor is the third and deciding vote on the State Lands Commission. It should be noted the GOP senator voted against the plan when it was attached to last summer's budget deal.
Tax, Tax, Tax, Tax: With another ugly budget deficit on the agenda for 2010... and beyond... there's going to be a lot of talk about reform of California's tax system. This debate was left unfinished in 2009, after a bipartisan tax commission tried... but mostly failed... to find consensus on any big fix that would make the state's revenue stream more dependable. Schwarzenegger called a special session of the Legislature to deal with tax reform last fall, but leaders tabled the issue for the remainder of 2009. It's a good bet we'll see an awful lot of pondering on the issue in the Capitol and a lot of talk about it on the stump statewide from the governor. But action depends on someone finding a middle ground between liberals and conservatives on perhaps the single most polarizing issue of all. And that's assuming there is some middle ground.
Calling The Collectinator: "By the time I'm through with this whole thing, I will not be known as the Terminator -- I will be known as the Collectinator." That quote from the 2003 recall campaign is vintage Schwarzenegger, a promise to shake things up when it comes to the amount of federal cash that flows westward to California. But the moniker has pretty much rung hollow in the years since. The governor went to Washington in 2005 to ask for more cash, but the PR-heavy trip didn't seem to make much of an impact. Now, he appears poised to again be ready to ask Washington for help... but faces a much different DC reality, one where dozens of states are hurting. There are a number of issues on which California can make its case -- from its importance in the national economy to its powerful delegation (hello, Madame Speaker). How soon will the Guv and legislative leaders start walking the halls on Capitol Hill?
Mr. Chief Justice, And May It Please The Court: But if ever there was a critical California story to play out in the nation's capital in 2010, it may well be the battle over conditions in... and control of... the state's prison system. Just last week, the Schwarzenegger administration again asked the U.S. Supreme Court to step in to the fight -- a request that became clear back in the winter of 2009, and kept percolating throughout all of the year's court fights over prison health care and overcrowding. A high court showdown would be full of intriguing story lines -- the ultimate authority of states versus the national government over issues related to constitutional protections, the liberal federal judges in California pushing for more control versus the delicate ideological balance of the Supremes (and how Sacramento's native son, Justice Anthony Kennedy, might again be the man in the middle), and all of it playing out during a gubernatorial and U.S. Senate campaign.
Party of Five: There's an awful lot of criticism these days over how the budget process has become so dependent on the private negotiations between the governor and the four legislative leaders, the eponymous "Big Five." No reason to rehash that here, but keep an eye on just which five people are sitting at the table in 2010. There's been evidence through the years that the tone and tenor of those negotiations are directly linked to how well everyone gets along (compare the anecdotes of very tense moments between Gray Davis and Democratic leaders with, say, the strudel sharing days of Arnold Schwarzenegger and former Senate leader John Burton).
We already know that there will be a new Assembly speaker -- at some point -- in the 2010 budget debate, John Perez. While he will no doubt be compared to his predecessor, Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, perhaps a better comparison may be with the last ex-labor official who led the lower house... and the last one to be chosen for the top job in his freshman term, Fabian Nunez. And there's a chance Perez may not be the only new face at the table inside the governor's private office by year's end. In yet another sidebar to the Maldonado story, a vacancy in his Senate seat may push current Assembly GOP Leader Sam Blakeslee into a special election... which could lead to another Republican taking over the reins.
Ye Olde Initiative Stalking Horse: Much has been made over the plethora of proposed ballot initiatives either in circulation or apparently headed for the ballot this year. But many believe some of those measures are out there to perhaps provide extra heft for the state's most powerful interest groups when it comes to Capitol negotiations over the budget and other public policy. Remember, it doesn't take much to actually get a proposal cleared for voter signatures -- $200 and a few smart policy wonks. But it does take big bucks to actually get the signatures needed... and at some point, interest groups on the left and right will have to decide whether to pull the trigger on proposals including a lowering of the two-thirds budget vote, tax credit repeals, labor union dues and political spending, tax increases on at the ballot, and so on.
Who's In Charge? Court battles over particular budget proposals or actions are nothing new, but there are going to be an awful lot of big judicial scuffles in this new year -- and each of them raise questions about the ultimate power that Governor Schwarzenegger, or his replacement, can wield over the state budget. Many of those lawsuits currently deal with the governor's power to furlough various subsets of state workers. On some fronts, the administration seems to be holding its own; on others, unions representing both correctional officers and employees paid with non-general fund dollars may prevail in beating back the cuts to their paychecks. Meantime, other 2009 lawsuits against the governor's budget actions are still pending, including a challenge to his veto power that arose over last July's budget deal.
The Lame Duck & Legacy Narratives: For more than six years, Arnold Schwarzenegger has commanded the state, national, and world stages when it comes to news about California. His brand of policymaking decisions and celebrity salesmanship for those decisions are second to none. But like any Schwarzenegger movie from the old days, this film is nearing the end. And so two issues are sure to dog the chief executive over the next 12 months.
First, can he avoid the perception that he's yesterday's news? Schwarzenegger and his advisers will be closely watched to see whether they can stay in the center of the decision making over big issues. While the $21 billion budget problem is going to take up a lot of his time, the Guv will no doubt repeat what he's done in so many years past: try to create "action, action, action" on a number of big issues all at the same time. But how tough will that be when everyone knows you're not going to be around much longer?
And loading all of those issues onto his plate -- be they electoral reform (the open primary measure on the June ballot), government reform, the November $11 billion water bond campaign -- will also drive the narrative that he's looking to solidify his place in the history books. That's especially likely given that the top issue of the 2003 recall, the state's fiscal dysfunction, is going to still be hanging around for the next guy or gal.
Will Schwarzenegger avoid questions about his desire for a legacy that matches his muscles, or will he use that chatter as a way to draw attention, and perhaps momentum, for a handful of the bigger issues? The dramatic final scene to this gubernatorial blockbuster is fast approaching. Will we walk out of the theater satisfied with the ending... or disappointed?