Capturing legislative seats. Shepherding a massive shift in school funding. Running the state’s court system. The seven Californians we picked to watch a year ago had an active 12 months. Before we announce the 2015 watch list, here’s how the 2014 group did.
Jim Brulte, chairman of the California Republican Party, could hardly have envisioned a better year.
Though the GOP again lost every race for statewide office in November, Brulte met his goals: Republicans picked up enough seats in the Legislature to deprive Democrats of supermajorities in both houses, and the party made gains in the U.S. House of Representatives (though the GOP had a net loss of one seat in California).
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The year was a major test for Brulte, the prominent former legislator Republicans recruited last year to revive the GOP. He came aboard following a 2012 election in which Democrats took two-thirds majorities in the Legislature for the first time in more than 100 years. He plans to seek another two-year term when the party convenes in Sacramento in February.
Despite his success in November’s election, however, Republican voter registration remains below 30 percent statewide. And the party continues to struggle with tension between activists and the GOP’s donor and professional classes.
During the state party’s fall convention, Brulte said in an email to party leaders that the GOP should have fewer conventions in the future.
He wrote, “Let’s try to show our face of one big happy family… Move the needle forward for all our candidates in 2014… And then help me get rid of a couple of the four conventions this party has to hold every two years.”
Government Operations Secretary Marybel Batjer envisioned 2014 as a year of change for the state government’s bureaucracy, but it got off to a rocky start.
A scathing February review said that despite Gov. Jerry Brown’s 3-year-old plan to make government nimble and more effective at recruiting and retaining employees, Batjer’s Department of Human Resources – which was supposed to lead the charge for change – had done virtually nothing about it.
“Users of CalHR’s services need to see more from the department’s leadership,” the Little Hoover Commission’s report stated.
CalHR director Julie Chapman abruptly retired the day before the report was released and 46-year-old Richard Gillihan, whose background is in technology and finance, replaced her.
Meanwhile, Batjer initiated “form reform,” such as standardizing employee timesheets and converting some paper documents to electronic files.
And the state is whittling away at the number of job types it carries on the books, aiming to simplify the bureaucracy and ease finding state work for job seekers. Currently, the government has about 3,800 job classifications, Batjer said, down from 4,500 just a few years ago.
Quiet rumblings that Sen. Holly Mitchell might snag the Senate’s top leadership post never materialized in 2014, as legislators chose Sen. Kevin de León as their next president pro tem in what was ultimately an uncontested bid.
During her first year in the California Senate, Mitchell, a Los Angeles Democrat, pushed for policies embraced by the liberal wing of the Democratic party, meeting mixed success with a Legislature and governor that lean closer to the center.
Mitchell’s bill to ban the controversial oil extraction method known as fracking failed to get out of the Senate, and her push to repeal a rule that makes women who get pregnant while on welfare ineligible for more money based on the baby’s birth stalled for a second year in a row.
But Mitchell was a leading voice in the successful effort to change California’s drug sentencing laws to remove disparities between crack and powder cocaine crimes that advocates called racist. Gov. Jerry Brown signed her Senate Bill 1010, which reduced the penalty for possession for sale of crack cocaine by bringing it to the same two-to-four year sentence imposed on offenders caught intending to sell powder cocaine.
He also signed her bill to allow law enforcement authorities to seek wiretaps in investigating human trafficking, which frequently involves selling girls into sexual exploitation, and signed another Mitchell measure that requires most health plans to cover all FDA-approved birth control methods.
Mitchell headed the Legislature’s black caucus during 2014, a year in which the caucus grew from eight members to 11 as voters chose African American legislators in several districts that are not predominantly black. Shortly after the election, Mitchell said that having a larger caucus “really empowers us to bring forward the plight of the African American in California.”
Michael Kirst finished 2014 focused on the same thing that has occupied much of his time since starting another stint leading the California State Board of Education: Revamping how the state’s schools get their money.
Last month, the state board approved final regulations for the Local Control Funding Formula, which was pushed by Kirst’s longtime associate, Gov. Jerry Brown, and targets more state money at schools with the neediest children.
In a related decision, the board also adopted a revised template for districts’ Local Control and Accountability Plans. Those set out how schools are supposed to gather input from parents, teachers and other groups and improve results.
The board’s decisions capped months of negotiations involving Kirst, school districts, civil rights groups, parents’ groups and dozens of other interests. In a statement, Kirst called the regulations and template “major transformations intended to ensure the state’s 6.2 million students” receive a quality education.
Several policy groups and think tanks have examined how the Kirst-led changes are working. In a report released earlier this month, Education Trust – West said the funding formula has increased “participatory planning and budgeting” in K-12 schools. But the report notes that much of the first year’s money paid for rising staff costs and other expenses unconnected to high-needs students. And the accountability plans “offer frustratingly little insight” into how school districts will spend LCFF money to help the neediest students, the report said.
The process isn’t over for Kirst, 75, a professor emeritus at Stanford University who was reappointed last January.
By October, the state board has to approve a trio of “rubrics” that will be used to assess school districts’ performance. Those will have a major impact on how the earlier regulations are carried out. And by July 2016, school districts have to update their accountability plans.
Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye set out to bring greater access and transparency to California’s troubled judicial branch in 2014. While she wasn’t able to secure the funding needed to reopen more than 50 shuttered courthouses across the state, Cantil-Sakauye oversaw the development of new open meeting, technology and language policies for the judiciary.
Despite a major campaign, the courts received only about half of the additional $472 million Cantil-Sakauye requested to make up for recession-era budget cuts. She said she is working more closely with Gov. Jerry Brown now to increase funding for the judicial branch again next year.
Following vocal criticisms of the judiciary’s administration and how it spends money by a group of judges, Cantil-Sakauye opened all meetings of the Judicial Council and its advisory committees to the public.
The council also adopted a proposal to standardize case management systems throughout the state and use technology to hold some court sessions remotely. A draft Language Access Plan, to facilitate interpretation for the approximately 200 languages and dialects spoken in California courts, will be voted on in the coming year.
Helping the judicial branch comply with the passage of Proposition 47, which reduces sentencing for some non-violent offenses, will be a major focus for Cantil-Sakauye in 2015.
In the end, after the fevered negotiations and the competing proposals and the down-the-stretch delays, Assemblyman Anthony Rendon, D-Lakewood, ended up in a prime position – standing next to Gov. Jerry Brown as he signed water bond legislation.
Rendon had made a new water bond his priority even before a multiyear drought intensified in 2014. With water supplies dwindling and crops withering, he believed the time had come to find a workable alternative to a prior bond that lawmakers approved for the ballot in 2009 but then abandoned by Sacramento consensus.
Rendon used his position as chair of the Assembly Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee to tour the state seeking input. He authored one of the first of what at one point multiplied to eight different water bond bills and played a central role in talks crafting a bill that could win enough votes.
The final product did more than win enough votes. It passed nearly unanimously, and it had Rendon’s name on it. Voters approved the $7.5 billion spending plan in Proposition 1 on the Nov. 4 ballot.
Speculation about Rendon becoming the next Assembly speaker didn’t pan out. That post went instead to Speaker Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, a top lieutenant to former Speaker John A. Pérez, D-Los Angeles.
But Atkins can serve only through 2016, while Rendon could conceivably serve until 2024. In the meantime Atkins has appointed Rendon chairman of the Assembly Utilities and Commerce Committee, one of a few “juice” committees coveted for the influential legislation they consider and the campaign donors’ interest they command.
Jeremy B. White
Heading into 2014, Don Specter identified his chief goal as enforcing the Supreme Court’s order to reduce California’s prison population.
By his standards, it was a success. “The year went very well,” said Specter, executive director of the nonprofit Prison Law Office in Berkeley.
In February, a federal three-judge panel gave state officials two years to meet the overcrowding order, setting a firm deadline to hit the population benchmarks. Central to the order was the appointment of a so-called compliance officer with the authority to release prisoners if need be.
Specter said the order also requires the state to put in place several other measures to reduce the number of prisoners, irrespective of the cap, including giving extra credits to “minimum-custody” prisoners such as those working in fire camps and nonviolent prisoners serving time for a second strike. Elderly and medically incapacitated prisoners would be granted parole hearings.
Specter said the biggest question remaining on the overcrowding order is whether the state can develop what the court calls a “durable remedy,” something to ensure that the prison population doesn’t spiral out of control once the court-ordered remedies are lifted. “Past attempts at a sentencing commission or legislation to revise the sentencing scheme have all failed unless there has been pressure from the federal courts,” Specter said.
He and his team have also been active on other fronts: They are close to reaching an agreement on a consent decree for the Fresno County jail, and are in discussions with San Bernardino County. Litigation with Riverside over its jail is ongoing.