Points To Ponder While I'm Away

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You won't see any blog postings or Twitter missives this week, nor will you hear any pithy podcasts or radio reporting.

I'm on furlough, part of KQED's plan to save money in these tough economic times. My feeling is that one week without pay is a lot better than 52, and given I believe in the mission of public media, I'm willing to do my part (but I encourage any of you who so desire to do yours, too).

But it got me to thinking -- what would I be watching and reporting about were I on the job this week? And so here's a sampling... as I instead turn to my long suffering list of home improvement projects. See ya next week.

Budget Blues & The Ticking Clock: Last week saw the end of what could reasonably be called Round 1 of the 2010 Budget Battle. The joint legislative budget conference committee completed its first "pass" through the minutae of the state's operations, a conversation largely about Governor Schwarzenegger's May budget proposal but also including some examination of alternate Democratic plans from the Senate and Assembly.

And the last two confabs of the week were, it seemed, especially telling about where things stand on finding $19 billion in budget solutions. On Friday, chairwoman Sen. Denise Ducheny (D-Chula Vista) opened the meeting by saying she thought there might be a few seemingly non-controversial sectors that could be "closed out" that day -- that is, items that could be approved as part of what will eventually be the final budget agreement. But not so fast: even generally agreed upon sectors like transportation are still marked by areas of disagreement.

And that came after a bit of a tense ending to the proceedings on Thursday, as Democrats and Republicans sparred over the unusual -- and possibly problematic -- Assembly proposal for a $9 billion Wall Street infusion of cash to be paid back over two decades. Dems, led by Assemblymember Bob Blumenfield (D-LA), argued that their plan -- while perhaps not perfect -- is an attempt to keep from cutting jobs in government services that would both hurt recipients of those services and add to the state's unemployment rolls.

"The governor's plan basically cuts 430,000 jobs," he said. "Our plan... we've really focused on creating jobs, and some of that is with General Fund money, but it really is about preventing us from going from 12.5% unemployment to 15% unemployment."

Which led Sen. Bob Dutton (R-Rancho Cucamonga) to say this: "You've created so many entitlements out there that the business community, that actually is there to try to generate a revenue stream or an income stream to pay taxes so you can afford to pay for those programs, they can’t handle the burden anymore."

Such rheortic may be dismissed by some as politics, but it's very much a glimpse into the contrasting -- and conflicting -- world views that have made budget agreements so torturous over the past few years. And so, one wonders, is there anything that might happen this week to change that? Don't bet on it.

Pension PR: There's a well-honed tradition over the six-plus years of the Schwarzenegger Administration to put on a pretty heavy PR show immediately after the Big Guy scores a victory. And so I wouldn't be surprised to see him touting last week's contract agreements with four state employee unions, agreements that included some of the first pension rollbacks in years. Those concessions, announced a few days ago, include higher pension contributions and more years on the job, as well as the first tweaks to a system that's allowed some workers to retire with pension benefits based only on a higher salary earned only in the final year of service. This week's two questions seem to be this: will other unions follow suit? And are these concessions major, or modest, reform of the pension system? That last question seems especially likely to dog the Guv this week, given that many of the changes will apply only to future employees represented by the four bargaining units in question -- and not, as the public might think, either current workers or any of the other 170,000 state workers represented by other unions. The Schwarzenegger team repeatedly told reporters this week that these deals do represent the kind of pension reform the Guv says is key to him signing a budget this year. But the deals also still require a review by legislators and rank-and-file employees... so this storyline's got a ways to go.

November Ballot -- Blockbuster or Bust? Will there be lights on and frantic work insider the offices of Secretary of State Debra Bowen this Thursday? It's the big question on the minds of the state's politicos as the week begins. Thursday is exactly 131 days before the November 2 election -- the constitutional deadline for any ballot initiative that wants to be in front of the voters before 2012.

Only one legislative ballot measures and three initiatives are, as of now (Sunday), on the ballot; six initiatives are pending. And there are some big ones -- budget reforms, electoral reforms, and more. Most of these final measures pushed their respective deadlines to the limit this spring to submit the necessary signatures for qualifying to be on the November ballot. These proposals not only represent big changes to a governance system in crisis, they also translate into big bucks on the line -- millions spent on gathering signatures and hiring consultants... millions more to be spent (and earned by some) on major statewide campaigns come the fall.

But the trick here is that these measures need to qualify for the ballot under what's called the "random sampling" process, where local elections officials examine only a portion of the signatures submitted, and then use a mathematical formula to figure out how many of the total sigs are then likely to be valid. That data is then transmitted to Bowen's HQ here in Sacramento for final certification.

One big measure -- to modify legislative term limits -- just recently failed to qualify under the random sampling; while it may still qualify to be placed on a ballot, it won't be in time for 2010... hence the angst this week for the others, which rely on the work of 58 county elections offices to be completed by midnight Thursday.

As of last week, a few local elections officials I spoke to were not convinced they could get all of this done by Thursday -- after all, they are still finalizing June 8 primary returns. And many counties also don't have the resources (cash) to authorize lots of OT for extra work on initiatives that admittedly were submitted to them very late in the game for getting on the ballot in November.

You can keep tabs on the latest info online. The campaign consultants I spoke with all expressed faith in the elections officers, as well as in their own expertise of how the efforts have been run so far. And truth be told, some of the big counties -- most notably, Los Angeles -- haven't yet reported any data, data which could easily put these measures over the top, and on the ballot, by Thursday's deadline.

The initiative that may be most in jeopardy -- based on the fact it was the last one to submit signatures -- is the proposal bankrolled by congressional Democrats to eliminate the state's independent citizens redistricting commission (created by 2008's Proposition 11 and not yet even convened). Should that measure not make it through the process in time, it would dash the plans of some for a counterbalance to a different redistricting measure that's already on the November ballot: one to allow the citizens to also draw congressional maps... one that, surprise, those same incumbent pols (bankrolling the measure in limbo) hate.

And should any of the pending measures not make it... there will be plenty of grumbles among those who had bet big bucks on a fall campaign. Of course, the voters are unlikely to shed tears if the ballot is smaller, not longer.

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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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