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January 13, 2012 > Calif. lawmakers return to face budget challenges

Calif. lawmakers return to face budget challenges

By Don Thompson, Associated Press

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP), Jan 03 - California lawmakers will reconvene to face a $13 billion budget deficit and other familiar issues, but they also will be dealing with an entirely new political landscape.

Legislators who want to continue their political careers are trying to figure out a new primary system and independently drawn legislative boundaries. The election-year dynamics are likely to influence much of the legislative debate, including how to resolve California's continual budget shortfalls.

Lawmakers returning Wednesday in Sacramento are awaiting Gov. Jerry Brown's plan to deal with the deficit over the next 18 months. He has until Jan. 10 to present his proposed budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Brown plans to ask voters in November to raise income taxes on high-income earners and boost the state sales tax by half a cent, both temporary measures. His budget is expected to include automatic cuts to public schools and social services if voters reject that initiative.

Increasing the sales tax and boosting income taxes on those earning more than $250,000 a year is expected to raise about $7 billion a year for five years.

It will be ``a dynamic year,'' said Robin Swanson, spokeswoman for Assembly Speaker John Perez, D-Los Angeles. She said Perez will work to persuade voters that the tax increases are vital to ``protect public schools and other vital services from devastating cuts.''

The recession has taken a deep bite out of California's tax revenue. The state's general fund budget for the current fiscal year is nearly $17 billion lower than it was during the 2007-08 fiscal year, when the recession began.

Lawmakers exhausted all the easy budget cuts years ago and face Republican resistance to raising revenue, which requires a two-thirds vote in the Legislature. Democrats control both chambers of the Legislature and say they are unwilling to again spend fruitless days negotiating with Republicans. Instead, they said they will prepare to pass a budget this spring by simple majority vote and rely on voters to approve Brown's tax proposal later in the year.

Dealing with California's budget deficit and persuading voters to raise revenue with temporary tax increases will be the governor's primary goals this year, Brown spokeswoman Elizabeth Ashford said Tuesday.

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, said lawmakers also will focus on non-budget issues such as changes to the mortgage industry, reducing the cost of college textbooks and implementing federal health care reforms. They also will consider if the state should sell voter-approved bonds to pay for high-speed rail and to rebuild the state's water distribution system.

A panel on Tuesday recommended that lawmakers not sell the first series of bonds for the initial phase of the high-speed rail project, saying the current plan is not feasible.

Two significant voter-approved changes will add uncertainty to lawmakers' political and legislative strategies this election year.

All 80 Assembly members and half the 40 state senators are up for election this year. They will run in new districts drawn by an independent redistricting commission that was tasked with avoiding partisan considerations.

They also run in June under a top-two open primary system, in which the two candidates with the most votes go on to the November election, even if they are from the same political party. Proponents hope that change will favor moderate lawmakers who are more willing to compromise.

Previously, the winner from each party advanced to the general election.

The Legislature reconvenes just as $1 billion in midyear reductions to schools, higher education and social services kick in because tax revenue did not meet the projections Gov. Jerry Brown and Democratic lawmakers set last summer. The session also begins less than a week after the state Supreme Court ruled that lawmakers have the authority to eliminate more than 400 community redevelopment agencies.

Those developments will create more budget pressure on local government officials, who are letting their state representatives know of their displeasure. The high court's ruling will free up about $1.7 billion for the state's general fund this fiscal year, but many lawmakers want a compromise to keep the agencies operating in some capacity.

Brown and majority Democrats will be negotiating with a new Senate Republican leader after Sen. Bob Dutton, R-Rancho Cucamonga, announced he would give up the post this month. A caucus vote is expected after Wednesday's Senate session to replace Dutton, who is termed out of office after this year.

Candidates to lead the 15 Republicans in the 40-member chamber include Joel Anderson of La Mesa and Bob Huff of Diamond Bar. Anderson is the top Republican on the Senate Public Safety Committee, while Huff has been the Republicans' budget negotiator.

Spokesmen for the Legislature's leaders said they expect little ceremony as lawmakers reconvene. Committees will begin meeting, but the bulk of bills will be considered later this spring.

The new year's session also will give lawmakers the opportunity to weigh in on national issues, including campaign finance.

Two Assembly Democrats, Michael Allen of Santa Rosa and Bob Wieckowski of Fremont, plan to introduce a resolution Wednesday urging Congress to pass a constitutional amendment overturning the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United campaign finance ruling in 2010.

The ruling overturned prohibitions against corporations contributing money to political campaigns, leading to a surge of such donations during the 2010 election cycle. Public Citizen, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit advocacy group supporting the resolution, said Hawaii passed a similar measure last year and that other states are considering joining in.

Some of the focus Wednesday will be on Assemblywoman Mary Hayashi, who faces a felony shoplifting charge alleging that she stole leather pants and two other items worth about $2,500 from a Neiman Marcus store in San Francisco in October.

Hayashi, D-Castro Valley, has pleaded not guilty. She said she was distracted by a cellphone conversation and inadvertently walked outside with the merchandise.

Prosecutors said she took the items into a dressing room and concealed them in an empty shopping bag before leaving.

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