Local Politics

Monday, Dec 27 2010 11:29 PM

Jobs to be top priority in 2011

BY CHRISTINE BEDELL, Californian government editor cbedell@bakersfield.com

Jobs. Water. Jobs. Redistricting. Jobs. Did we say jobs? Those will be the issues to watch in 2011, with brightening the nation's miserable employment picture paramount, say political observers and elected leaders.

In Washington, D.C., all major legislation will be packaged and sold as a job bill, said Marc Sandalow, editor of California News Service, a journalism project of the University of California.

"Everything is going to be related to jobs," Sandalow said. "Even foreign affairs will be about jobs, if there's a trade bill. If there's a fight about whether California gets high speed-rail money, they'll talk about how many jobs are going to come. Stimulus? Jobs."

Observers also say 2011 is the year Sacramento stops kicking state financial cans down the road and makes tough cuts and structural budget changes, because every trick has been pulled and failed.

But are lawmakers really going to act on the issues we seem to go 'round and 'round on like major budget reform, immigration and government cutbacks?

"I have no idea if they'll make headway," admitted Tony Quinn, co-editor of the Target Book, which analyzes state races. "Nor do they."

WASHINGTON

The House GOP agenda

The top priorities for House Republicans when they assume the majority in January will be creating jobs, cutting spending and repealing the health-care reform law President Barack Obama signed into law last March, said Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, incoming majority whip.

But right out of the gate, he said, the House GOP will set new rules for handling legislation in an effort to increase transparency and allow for more debate.

They want to shift power from the leadership to rank-and-file members through such things as doing more work in committee instead of by a few behind closed doors and scheduling votes later so bills get more public airing, McCarthy said. He said Republicans will shrink committees to increase productivity and increase oversight of committees.

We will see more bills given "sunset" provisions so that they phase out and be scrutinized for their effectiveness, McCarthy said.

The leadership already has decided to switch up the House's schedule to give lawmakers more time in their districts. The House will be in session for a couple of weeks, then off for a week.

On jobs, McCarthy said, the GOP has a bill called the REINS Act saying agencies can't enact a major rule -- one costing businesses $100 million or more -- without a vote of Congress, which is more directly representative of the people.

Now, he said, companies are sitting on large wads of cash instead of hiring and investing because of uncertainty as to what government might impose on them.

"Reining in agencies gives people a say in it and provides certainty," McCarthy said.

The GOP remains set on trying to repeal health-care reform, though there's no hard time frame as Congress needs to get settled in first, McCarthy said.

And on spending, he said, the Republicans want to go back to pre-stimulus, pre-bailout discretionary spending levels. That won't balance the budget, but it would be a good start in cutting back government, McCarthy said.

But will any of this go anywhere since the Democrats control the Senate and presidency?

McCarthy said "good legislation" stands a chance with 23 Senate Dems and the president up for re-election in 2012 plus the fact the GOP did so well in November.

The new tax-cut agreement could be a sign of things to come, he said. He also pointed to what happened when Republicans took back the House in 1995 and Bill Clinton was president: welfare reform.

"Sometimes divided government can make people have to find common ground," he said, adding that at first, though, "it might not be pretty."

Jim Costa

On the other side of the aisle, Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, said we'll get a sense of the new House's tone by the State of the Union address in late January.

Reducing the deficit and otherwise getting the country's "fiscal house in order" will be the top priority over the next two to eight years, he said. In the immediate future there will be a lot of different ideas offered for doing that.

"The key will be whether, in a bipartisan fashion, we will be able to create some agreement on one -- a process that would lead us to reach those goals of reducing the deficit to the point, hopefully, we have a balanced budget and, two -- develop a timeline on how to get there and what combination of cuts versus other strategies are available," Costa said.

He called the compromise shown over tax-cut extensions "a good first start" toward cooperation.

Costa said his focus will be on an ag jobs bill to stabilize the farming work force, reauthorization of the 2012 farm bill in ways that benefit his district and, above all, bringing more water here.

Getting more transportation money to ensure the high-speed rail project is connected to Bakersfield and to improve Highway 99 also are among his goals.

Others' take

Thomas Holyoke, a political science professor at Fresno State, agreed all major initiatives will be pushed as job bills.

"High-speed rail is now being promoted as a jobs issue where other times it was promoted as an environmental issue," he said. "The valley's perennial issue, water, is also being talked about as 'no water, no farms, no farms, no agricultural jobs.'"

Sandalow said national tax reform will be a big issue. We could see a push for tax simplification and/or fights over the raising and lowering of certain taxes.

Expect big proposals early in the session, Sandalow said, as "the new Republican majority will be pushing to lower taxes as much as possible."

"The dynamics could be right for tax reform, partly because it's a good issue for Democrats and Republicans to compromise on and there's enormous pressure on Obama and Republicans in Congress to take something to voters and prove their worth to independents," he said.

Lowering the deficit will take center stage, though that doesn't mean Congress will actually do something about it, Sandalow said. Same goes for some facet of immigration reform, he said.

Republicans won't get far trying to repeal health-care reform, Sandalow said, but may try it anyway to get the vote on the record. They also could refuse to appropriate money for it, but that "would be messy," he said.

From a Central Valley perspective, it's worth noting the most powerful people in California's D.C. delegation will be from the valley or at least inland, not San Francisco and Los Angeles, Sandalow said.

More broadly, he said he sees Obama, Republicans and some Democrats compromising on trade deals that will make it easier to export valley products overseas.

But there also will be gridlock, Sandalow said.

"A lot of people think Congress not acting much is good," he said. "You don't want to lurch one direction or another."

Quinn, of the Target Book, will be watching McCarthy.

"We'll see if he goes the way of (former House GOP Majority Leader) Tom DeLay and (outgoing Speaker) Nancy Pelosi. The last two leaders in the House have been dismal failures.

"The people finally threw out the Republicans in 2006 because of corruption and spending, and we found the Democrats four years later doing the same thing."

He's also interested in seeing if "the new leaders learn the lesson that they need to deal with the things people are interested in, like the economy, and not get off on a tangent like the other leaders did."

SACRAMENTO

Bakersfield's senior state lawmaker

The big question in early 2011 will be whether incoming California Gov. Jerry Brown is able to do what he appears to want to do: ask voters in a special election to approve about $10 billion in tax increases to help deal with the state's approximately $25 billion budget gap, said state Sen. Jean Fuller, R-Bakersfield.

He'd need to collect enough signatures from voters or get two-thirds of the Legislature to agree to put tax increases on the ballot -- meaning moderate Democrats and some Republicans would need to get on board, Fuller said.

It's hard to predict whether Republicans will get behind tax hikes because there are so many new legislators, especially in the Assembly, Fuller said. But she doesn't think it's likely.

"I do not believe Republicans will be interested in doing that because we believe the people have spoken and said they don't want new taxes," Fuller said.

Fuller said it's odd Brown didn't start collecting signatures the day after he was elected governor, and that she "can't see" supporting tax increases because the governor-elect hasn't used any of the tools at his disposal -- like gathering signatures.

What to cut to make up for the $15 billion hole theoretically remaining has got to be rectified, too, Fuller said. So far, she said, Brown hasn't said what he'd ax; it would be tough to cut education given Proposition 98, unless it's suspended.

Brown has warned Californians to be seated when he unveils his budget proposal in January.

Fuller said her priorities start with drawing more water to valley farmers. She'd like to see additional stressors on the delta smelt identified and dealt with, such as sewage pollution, in order to get more water pumping approved.

Fuller said Brown told her he'll study water after a budget is passed.

She also really hopes the state budget has some type of plan to help businesses.

"For me, infrastructure that provides wealth is important," Fuller said. "I want water. I want infrastructure that delivers water. If you put a vineyard and farms back to work we have workers right away, cheaper food for people."

And finally, Fuller said a priority will be promoting tourism in her district as an economy booster.

Other thoughts

The state will have no choice but to stop using tricks -- like deferring payments and making bad assumptions -- to pass a budget and instead address the structural problems with California's financial system, Holyoke of Fresno State said.

"They can't avoid fundamental decisions," he said. "The pressure is going to be enormous to get something done."

And Holyoke said "something done" must mean cutting a department or services in a big way, to "fundamentally change how they fund prisons, schools -- something big like that."

Cities and counties are going to be in a world of hurt, he also said, because there won't be federal stimulus funds available and the state "is not going to be in a position to really help" them with their budget problems. The state will have less power to take money from local government, but it's not going to help much, Holyoke said.

"So many (cities and counties) have terrible budget problems," he said. "They're going to have to choose among cuts to parks, health, mental health, prisons, police and fire."

Redistricting will be a huge issue in 2011, Holyoke said, although recently released census numbers show that California with neither gain nor lose a House seat.

And on high-speed rail?

The state will have to address a peer-review, state-ordered report out last month calling for a "thorough reassessment" of parts of California's high-speed rail plan, including its business model and financial underpinnings.

"That report wasn't just politics from politicians who don't want to pay. It was experts saying the way it's set up now doesn't work. That has to be addressed," Holyoke said.

"If the state can do that, the project will probably go forward because there is state and federal support."

McCarthy's effort to divert federal money away from the project probably will fail, he said, but the congressman "can make things uncomfortable for people."

He's referring to a bill McCarthy supports that would take back any unused stimulus money, which includes high-speed rail funds. He's skeptical California's project would pencil out financially without substantial government money.

And Holyoke will be eyeing Brown.

"Everyone's eager to see what Jerry Brown is going to be like, the Jerry Brown of the past or a new and improved Jerry Brown," he said.

Quinn, at the Target Book, wants to see what the Democrats will do controlling every statewide office and the Legislature.

"Divided control is over with," Quinn said. "(Brown's) got to deal with the budget situation he now admits is much worse than he thought."

And echoing Holyoke, he said "the fact the Schwarzenegger administration and the Legislature kept kicking the can down the road -- that's over with."

Quinn has great confidence in the redistricting commission and believes it will draw districts that are more compact and reflective of their communities, spurring more competitive races.

LOCAL GOVERNMENT

The city

For Bakersfield, the biggest issue looming in 2011 is the state budget. City staffers fear folks in Sacramento will find a way to borrow or take money from local coffers despite new voter-approved rules meant to limit the practice.

With the state looking at what Brown recently said could be a $28 billion budget gap over the next 18 months, deep cuts are likely to reach down to the city and county, but no one knows yet where they'll hit.

At the same time, Bakersfield's revenues from property and sales taxes have dropped in recent years, as has money from fees for building permits and other activities slowed by the recession. The revenue picture isn't expected to change much next year.

It's not all gloomy, though. Two major parks -- the Sports Village on Taft Highway with eight soccer fields and the Mesa Marin Softball Complex, with four diamonds in the northeast -- will open in 2011.

The county

Money will once again dominate county discussions in 2011.

County negotiators are months into contract talks with all of the county's unions, and the Board of Supervisors has already declared impasse with units representing most of the county's workers.

Supervisors are seeking concessions from the unions that would require all county workers to contribute monthly to their retirement and health-care benefits -- something thousands of workers are not currently required to do.

With anti-union leader Zack Scrivner and his assumed political ally Karen Goh joining the board, it isn't likely that the assault on public employee pay and benefits will slacken.

Expect the county to struggle to establish its budget for the third year in a row.

With $13 million in increased pension costs, union contracts up in the air and tax revenues slack, the county is preparing for another budget where cuts will need to be made to fill a deficit.

In the past two years the budget process has left the county battered as budget estimates have gone awry, prompting sharper cuts than -- as it turned out -- were needed.

LOCAL POLITICS

The Dems

The Kern County Democratic Party will probably focus on issues rather than election campaigns in 2011, said Chairwoman Candi Easter.

The party wants to continue encouraging more people to vote by mail and would even like to see the county go exclusively to by-mail balloting, she said. That would save the county money, she said, and get more people to vote.

Easter said the Democrats will also watch the redistricting process closely because they're concerned about what it will do to Kern County representation. They'll advocate for high-speed rail and employee unions that will be battling city and county government, she said.

"We've had an election almost every year since who knows when, and it's going to be nice to have a year to rebuild and rethink things, work on issues we think are important," Easter said.

The GOPers

Conni Brunni, secretary of Bakersfield Republican Women Federated, said her group is excited to be hosting a conference for the central division of California Federation of Republican Women, where members will learn about how to run their organizations and the important issues of the day.

The Bakersfield group will have panels at its monthly meetings in 2011 on all sorts of issues. It kicks off the year in January with Harold Pease, a Taft College political science professor, talking about the constitutionality of such things as TSA pat-downs and the new federal mandate to purchase health insurance.

Other issues the group plans to tackle in 2011 are water, high-speed rail, the state budget and redistricting, she said.

Scrivner, of the Kern County Republican Party, said the local GOP is planning its annual Lincoln Day Dinner to raise money for voter registration efforts and waiting to see who McCarthy recruits to be its main speaker.

Staff writer James Burger contributed to this report.

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