Black Bart Award Nominee — Legislature is California’s Comeback Story

John Wildermuth
Journalist and Political Commentator

Pigs are taking wing. There are snowdrifts outside the devil’s door. The Chicago Cubs will win the World Series. And the California Legislature is my pick for the Black Bart award.

Yeah, that’s pretty much the same Legislature that in 2009 defined dysfunction by forcing the state to issue IOUs because lawmakers couldn’t agree on the best way – or any way, actually – to bridge the state’s budget gap. And just to prove that wasn’t an accident, in 2010 legislators didn’t pass the budget until October, more than three months late.

But regardless of what Neel Kashkari kept trying to tell voters this fall, California is in a comeback and the Legislature gets a big piece of the credit.

Just look at the November ballot. Both Proposition 1, the $7.5 billion water bond, and Proposition 2, the state’s new Rainy Day Fund, were put on the ballot by the Legislature after long and often heated three-way negotiations between legislators of both parties and Gov. Jerry Brown.

No one got everything he or she wanted, but everyone got enough to put together a measure Republicans, Democrats and the governor could live with. And the voters approved both props by a better than two-thirds vote.

Gee, partisan lawmakers taking on important issues, pushing hard for their disparate views and ultimately finding a middle ground for a bipartisan compromise that will benefit the state.

That sounds just like the high school civics book said government is supposed to work.

Congress should take note.

Californians are noticing the change. A recent survey by the Public Policy Institute of California found that 41 percent of the state’s adults now approve of the way the Legislature is handling its job.

Sure, 42 percent still turn thumbs down on the Legislature, but the numbers are way better than the 12 percent yes to 61 percent no split voters gave lawmakers just four years ago.

And in a measure that either bodes well for the future or shows the blind optimism that has long helped define the state, 56 percent of California adults are at least somewhat confident the Legislature and the governor can work together in the future to solve the state’s problems.

Talking about the Rainy Day Fund ballot measure, GOP state Senate leader Bob Huff called it an agreement “that reflects the type of bipartisan compromise Californians should expect from their elected officials.”

This year, at least, the Legislature gave California the type of “let’s-do-what’s-best-for-the-state” government it deserves. And that’s worthy of the Black Bart award.

There were some noteworthy names in California this year.

Democratic state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg and Huff, his Republican counterpart, took the lead in the Legislature’s compromise talks this year, not least because Steinberg’s GOP-proof two-thirds majority blew up when a trio of Democratic legislators were more-or-less shown the door after running into big-time legal problems.

Although Democrats will disagree, no party has a monopoly on smart ideas and the ability to totally ignore the state’s 5 million Republican voters is not and never will be a good thing for California.

Both Huff and Steinberg managed to keep their focus on what’s important for California, placate restive members of their respective caucuses and still produce the votes needed to move measures along.

Steinberg may have had the tougher job, since he also had to deal with Democratic legislators anxious to challenge the governor’s efforts to keep a lid on the state budget while still convincing Brown to find additional money for things like pre-school education and repairs to the state’s tattered safety net. It’s a delicate balancing act that state Sen. Kevin de Leon, successor to the termed-out Steinberg, will have to learn.

Finally, here’s a shout-out to a couple of Democratic politicians back for four more years in Sacramento.

State Treasurer John Chiang and Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones are lifelong friends who both grew up in the Chicago area, hung out at each other’s homes and served on their high school’s student council together.

The two men went their separate ways to college and then law school, but like so many people before them, looked to California as the land of opportunity and moved west.

Fast forward to November, when Chiang and Jones, their political futures bright, were elected once again to statewide office, showing again that the California Dream still lives in a state that welcomes newcomers.

John Wildermuth is a longtime writer on California politics.

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