You might figure that legislators would have little to do in an election year when voters likely will be asked to decide initiatives to legalize marijuana, restrict bullets, tax the rich, raise wages for the working poor, monkey with a pending plastic bag ban, and much more.
But as the Legislature returns Monday, there will be plenty of weighty issues that require thoughtful solutions, not the least of which will be to try to avert unnecessary ballot fights. Not to be too foolishly optimistic, but we hope for the best.
In the first year of the 2015-16 legislative session, lawmakers focused on climate change, childhood vaccinations and whether physicians should be permitted to help terminally ill patients seeking to die rather than live out their last days in pain.
In the second year of the session, lawmakers will focus on their re-election and their next office. As politicians say – though don’t always mean – good policy makes for good politics. Even so, they would do well to work on policy combating homelessness, particularly among severely mentally ill people.
There is no more pressing social issue, as illustrated by Sacramento Bee editorial writer and columnist Erika D. Smith’s report last week on the death of Sivam Lekh, a 5-month-old baby who was born to homeless woman, and as Cynthia Hubert recounted last fall in a story about Genevieve Lucchesi, a 77-year-old woman who died on the streets. In Sacramento, San Francisco, Los Angeles and many other cities, wise policy focused on homelessness would make for good politics.
Lawmakers almost certainly will maintain a focus on economic security, properly so, and how to ensure college students graduate in four years. As part of that effort, they should focus on ways to help students avoid incurring debt that will hobble them into middle age.
Legislators can try to talk initiative promoters down from pursuing ballot measures. That should happen on several measures.
Resolving highway funding should be at the top of legislators’ to-do list. Roads are pockmarked and bridges need to be shored up. Although Californians already pay among the highest gas taxes, motorists can expect to pay more in taxes at the pump and in annual registration fees.
Any tax hike would require that Democrats and Republicans compromise. If legislators fail to resolve it – and Republicans see little reason to vote for a tax hike – a transportation funding initiative could end up on what almost certainly will be a lengthy ballot in November.
Another issue left hanging from 2015 is health care funding. An expiring tax is leaving a $1 billion hole in the health care budget. Once more, Republicans see little reason to levy a tax. But Republican legislators are seeking a long-overdue increase in funding to care for developmentally disabled people.
The tax ought to be restored, and developmental services, which haven’t received an increase in a decade, deserve an increase. There ought to be the makings of a compromise, although in election years short-term gain often trumps compromise.
By law, legislators can try to talk initiative promoters down from pursuing ballot measures by finding middle ground. That should happen on several measures, among them open government initiatives, a minimum wage increase pushed by organized labor, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s measure to regulate bullets and cigarette tax proposals.
No doubt, decisions will depend in part on whether promoters see short-term advantage in having statewide votes, or whether they do hope to bring about sound policy. It might be a bit much to ask that politics take a backseat. But it’s the start of a new year, and that’s a time for hope and optimism.