California Political Stories to Watch in 2012

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A new year has arrived and, now that we've closed the book on 2011, here's a glimpse into the crystal ball at what might be some of the interesting things around the bend in California politics for 2012.

Yes, some of them are more likely than others. But foresight isn't 20/20, so take this with all of the appropriate caveats.

The Great Tax Debate: Yes, this one's an obvious choice. Governor Jerry Brown's nascent campaign to qualify and lead a $7 billion tax increase initiative to victory on November 6 is no doubt the biggest thing on the horizon. But it's the precise contours of how all of this plays out that seem, for now, most intriguing. Brown may believe, as do many, that the electorate's willingness to approve additional taxes is finally above the 50% mark. But the effort will be the biggest test so far of the iconic Democrat's political acumen. From clearing the field of other competing/conflicting tax initiatives, to raising big bucks, to carefully making the campaign about vital services and not less-than-beloved politicians... the governor will need to bring his A-game. And the campaign will no doubt be influenced by the daily headlines out of the Capitol on the budget -- which means, more than ever before, Brown may have to be extra careful to keep his fellow Democrats on message. Tax opponents begin any revenue campaign with a built-in advantage in California; any missteps by the governor's coalition could easily be magnified in the 24-hour cycle of mainstream and social media.

The Political Return of Indian Gaming Tribes? When news emerged a few days ago that Brown's tax initiative campaign had already raised more than $1 million, it was noted -- but not with any emphasis -- that a good chunk of the change came from some of the state's gaming tribes. And that's news all by itself, because tribes have been largely absent from big state political campaigns for the last seven years. That would be the same amount of time that a certain blockbuster chief executive who thew tribes into his fairly limited definition of "special interests." The only major political spending in that long exile was in 2008, when a group of big casino tribes defended amended gaming agreements in a series of ballot referenda.

Many tribes have sounded notes of approval about Brown in his first 12 months back as governor, and he's reciprocated with additional outreach to Indian country, most notably the creation of a new liaison to tribal governments.

Will we see more Indian gaming plays in political races in 2012? Tough to say. But the fact that tribes are part of Brown's coalition is important. And remember, too, that some of the state's most successful tribes have formal gaming agreements that were crafted in 1999 and expire in 2019 -- meaning Brown may be the governor who renegotiates those deals.

Republicans Forgotten, But Not Gone: There's a great scene in the 1999 cult classic movie Office Space where hated boss Bill Lumbergh pushes adds insult to injury to his beleaguered employee Milton Waddams, who he wishes would just quit.

"We're gonna need to go ahead and move you downstairs into storage B," says Lumbergh as he sneers at Milton's hidden away desk. "So if you could just go ahead and pack up your stuff and move it down there, that would be terrific, OK?"

Okay, that's admittedly a stretch to the plight of legislative Republicans in the statehouse (and only some good-natured ribbing, GOP friends). But 2012 may be the year that the Democratic majority and the Democratic governor decide they no longer need to treat Republicans as true governing partners. After all, the practical efect of both the governor's take-it-to-the-voters tax initiative and the Proposition 25 budget majority vote is that the GOP doesn't have an ace card in any of the expected big negotiations.

But wait, you say. What about economic incentive proposals that include tax changes (erasing a tax break requires a supermajority/bipartisan vote)? Suppose, as the governor was asked and left open in last week's news conference, there's an effort to postpone the November water bond measure? That, too, would likely require a supermajority vote.

The point is not so much that Republicans will, um, have their desks sent to the storage room... but more that GOP power as a minority party over the last decade has largely hinged on having some say-so in the budget process. Prop 25 took a huge bite out of that power; the absence of a Capitol debate on taxes in 2012 threatens to do so almost completely.

Life or Death on November 6?: My pick for initiative debate of the year is easily the proposed measure to abolish the death penalty in California. But only if it makes the ballot -- something that seems quite possible. The campaign seems to have a good head of steam in raising money to gather signatures. And frankly, should it qualify, the debate may be loud and passionate without slick mailers or TV ads that other initiatives need to get attention. Opponents of capital punishment were no doubt buoyed by the recent comments of California's chief justice, who expressed many of the practical and fiscal concerns that even long-time supporters of the law now cite in private conversations. To make matters even more interesting, the political debate comes as state officials continue to be vexed by court actions rejecting efforts to restart lethal injections at San Quentin. And while other governors may have gone out and personally campaigned against the abolition of capital punishment, Jerry Brown is an unlikely candidate for such a role. Yes, he's affirmed his stance on carrying out the law, but it was a younger Brown whose personal opposition to capital punishment played a pivotal role on the issue during his father's first term in office.

The Top Two Throwdowns: Political junkies will spend an awful lot of time watching the net effect of California's new primary elections system, and even campaign consultants admit that they're unsure of just how the so-called 'top two' primary will force them to adjust their strategies. And the lament goes something like this: do we spend big bucks in June and then risk having depleted coffers in November when it really counts? Or do we hold back our firepower, but risk a spoiler candidate (another party, an unknown contender, etc.) slipping into the top two slots on Election Night? Granted, the list of legislative and congressional districts likely to face the big change -- that is, a primary that ends with two candidates from the same party advancing to November -- is fairly small compared to the 153 races on the June ballot. But it's a fascinating storyline for us political junkies.

The Young & The Restless, 2014 Edition: You're forgiven if you think you didn't hear a convincing answer from Governor Jerry Brown last week when he was asked the question: are you running for reelection in 2014? Brown seems to genuinely be unsure, or unconcerned, with what happens that far in the future. But he's also smart enough to know that if he is intending to step aside, confirmation would almost instantly zap his political power in Sacramento.

All of which means the presumed heirs apparent -- Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom, Attorney General Kamala Harris, LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, and others -- will have to keep their powder dry. Newsom and Harris had pretty successful fundraising efforts in 2011, and certainly both may need that money for re-election to their current offices. But all three of the Dem heavyweights will be worth watching these next 12 months. Newsom, as do all lite guvs, has struggled to stay in the public eye for extended periods of time, and fell into a short-lived but testy squabble with Team Brown back in October over some comments to the Dem faithful. Harris has an expansive portfolio as AG and has made headlines on gang/drug issues and on her insistence in a do-over of a multi-state settlement on the "robo-signing" mortgage scandal. And Villaraigosa faces the next-to-last year of his mayoralty in Los Angeles, which may mean he'll need an agenda that translates into solid party cred before the race to replace him takes over the headlines in 2013.

By the way, the reason there's no mention here of Republicans angling for the big job in 2014... is because no one seems to be able to name any. But that's another story.

Will Facebook 'Friend' The State Budget? This is perhaps the most significant one to watch of all on the list, even though the hoped-for tidal wave wouldn't start to roll in for the state budget for some time to come.

Still, if Facebook at long last launches its initial public offering, there's a good chance it will mean a big payday the state's general fund, probably before Brown's first term ends.

"The most anticipated stock market debut of 2012 is expected to value Facebook at as much as $100 billion," Reuters reported recently, "which would top just about any of Silicon Valley's most celebrated coming-out parties, from Netscape to Google, Inc."

The Reuters piece goes on to quote a blind source who predicts "thousands of millionaires" in the Facebook employee rolls once the IPO takes place, an event several business news organizations are pointing out could come as soon as April. And yes, those new wealthy techies would be filing state taxes in California.

Yes, I know, the revenues wouldn't show up in 2012. But if the IPO happens, keep an eye on how big it ends up being. After all, the when the last titan of Silicon Valley -- Google -- went public in 2004, the impact to the state budget was profound... with reports of only a handful of tax returns easily counting for a nine-figure boost to the general fund.

In the Meantime: Here's to a happy and prosperous New Year for all of you, and many thanks for logging on and reading these missives. By the way, check out my crystal ball musings from a year ago (yes, with the same photo) to see how you think they fared over these past 365 days, as well as my New Year's Eve tweets (via Storify) of my own top 10 list of 2011's California political stories.

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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.
  • Anonymous

    Excellent article.

  • Wcflores446

    one of the reasons there are no Republican contenders for Governor office is they know what their up against. I think they will wait until the state implodes on it’s self then you’ll hear hear about one.

  • Anonymous

    Every qualified California student
    should get a place in University of California (UC) system. That’s a desirable
    goal for a public university. However, UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau
    displaces Californians qualified for education at Cal. with foreigners paying $50,600 tuition.

    Paying more is not a
    better education. UC tuition increases exceed the national average rate of
    increase. Instate tuition and fees have doubled. Birgeneau jeopardizes access
    to Cal by
    making it the most expensive public university.

    President Mark Yudof uses tuition increases to pay for faculty &
    administrator salary increases. Payoffs like these point to higher operating
    costs and still higher tuition and taxes.
    Instate tuition consumes 14% of Cal. Median Family Income. President Yudof is
    hijacking our families’ and kids’ futures: student debt.

    I agree that Yudof and Birgeneau
    should consider the students’ welfare & put it high on their values. Deeds
    unfortunately do not bear out the students’ welfare values of Birgeneau,
    Lansing and Yudof.

    We must act. Birgeneau’s
    campus police deployed violent baton jabs on students protesting Birgeneau’s tuition
    increases. The sky will not fall when Chancellor Robert J Birgeneau ($450,000
    salary) ‘honorably’ retires.

    Opinions to UC Board of Regents,

  • Casino Grinder

    2012 will be very interesting in political area..

  • Lee Hauser

    Jerry’s choice to raise taxes will blow up in his face.    He’s got only one thing on his mind these days…how to stick it to us.

  • Speech85

    The Governor is giving us, the citizens, a choice: deeper cuts or additional taxes.  If you prefer the former, you will have the opportunity to say so at the ballot box.