Kings and politics to dominate headlines in 2014

The future of Sacramento’s downtown, the manner in which the city is governed and the rural landscape of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta – all will be shaped by a variety of decisions and events expected in 2014. Here are some of the key issues expected to play out in Sacramento and the broader region as the new year unfolds.

The Kings

Drama over Sacramento’s only major league professional sports team has reigned for years, but 2014 could be the year that ends much of the debate about the team’s proposed new downtown arena. Bold new plans for an arena to open in 2016 on the Downtown Plaza site could spark a development boom.

But first city leaders face a challenge from groups opposed to the $258 million public subsidy for the arena project. Opponents of the subsidy submitted petition signatures last month in an effort to force a public vote on the matter, and a decision could come this month on whether those petitions contain enough valid signatures. If they do, the issue would go before local voters on the June ballot and the team’s future once again would be up in the air.

A sporting town

The Kings may be the biggest sports story in the area, but the region will experience a renaissance in 2014 as it ends a years-long drought of hosting major events.

The Amgen Tour of California will begin May 11 in Sacramento after skipping the capital city for the past two years. The event is one of the most prestigious cycling events in the world and draws tens of thousands of spectators.

Also returning after a lengthy absence are the USA Track and Field Outdoor Championships, which will take place over five days in June at California State University, Sacramento. The event has not been held in Sacramento for a decade, and it could lead to a rejuvenation of the region as a track and field mecca.

Sacramento also is expected to field a new professional soccer team, Sacramento Republic FC. Though details remain fluid, team officials have said they hope to launch play in March at a temporary facility to be constructed at Cal Expo.

They have modest expectations to start, looking to attract up to 8,000 spectators to the matches. But their long-term goals are big time: convincing Major League Soccer that Sacramento can support one of its premier franchises, and that the team can put together financing for a $100 million soccer stadium seating up to 18,000 fans.

The mayor’s future

Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson won accolades for leading the charge to stop the Kings from moving to Seattle. This may also be the year that he wins the strong-mayor powers he has sought since taking office in 2008.

A measure placed on the November ballot by the City Council would transfer some of the powers currently wielded by the unelected city manager to the mayor’s office, including the authority to propose the annual city budget. The mayor also would be empowered to nominate and remove the city manager. In addition, the measure would create citizen committees tasked with overseeing a City Hall code of ethics and drawing new districts for council members, and it would impose term limits for the mayor.

A pivotal election

Gov. Jerry Brown has not yet said if he will seek re-election in 2014, but he’s widely expected to run. If so, state voters will decide whether Brown, a Democrat, should be returned to office for a second consecutive term (and fourth overall). They also will determine whether Democrats retain two-thirds majorities in the Senate and Assembly.

Crime and punishment

Federal judges have ordered California to cut the inmate population to 137.5 percent of prison capacity and have made it clear they want the overcrowding issue resolved this year. They have given the state until April 18 to get the inmate population down to 112,164 prisoners from the 119,262 held in mid-December.

Gov. Brown’s realignment program – which has shifted responsibility to the counties for offenders deemed low-level and nonviolent – has helped trim inmate populations by tens of thousands, but critics say it also has funneled more criminals into neighborhoods and endangered the public.

Water wars

Brown also faces controversy in 2014 over his plan for a $25 billion water diversion plan that would include building two massive tunnels in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Tunnel proponents say the project is key to resolving decades of conflict over California’s water supply and repairing the health of the Delta’s fragile ecosystem.

Water agencies that depend on the Delta say the project would help stabilize that water supply, which in dry years might be 25 percent or less of what they are allowed by contract. But Delta residents have come out in strong opposition to a project would bring a decade of heavy construction, including rerouted highways, new power lines and thousands of heavy truck trips. State and federal regulators are still weighing whether the project qualifies for the necessary environmental permits.

Debate is expected through the year, with a final proposal drafted by the end of 2014.

A bridge to tomorrow

Sacramento’s transportation system has undergone major changes in recent years as the region has continued to grow, especially along Highway 50. 2014 is expected to be the year that a $23 million project on Watt Avenue at Highway 50 is completed, transforming what was once a major bottleneck into the widest overpass in Sacramento.

The project is scheduled for completion by August and will feature a center lane reserved for buses, bike and pedestrian underpasses, as well as additional lanes for vehicles.