Leading lawmakers hope to reorganize state services and assign many duties to county governments. Meanwhile, clout in the Senate shifts to business-friendly moderate Democrats.

By Patrick McGreevy and Michael J. Mishak, Los Angeles Times
December 5, 2010

Reporting from Sacramento —

The California Legislature will gavel in a new two-year session Monday mired in a financial mess that is likely to hamper ambitious lawmaking.

Leading lawmakers are turning introspective, saying the $25.4-billion budget deficit expected over the next year and a half forces them to focus on how the Golden State is governed. They hope to reorganize the government by shifting many of its responsibilities to counties and applying greater scrutiny to other state services, with an eye toward doing more with less.

Assembly Speaker John Pérez (D-Los Angeles) told new legislators at an orientation meeting last month that they should expect to spend much of their time dealing with financial problems.

The challenge, Pérez said in an interview with The Times, is to answer the questions “How do we use our limited resources to create greater economic development in this state? How do we make budget decisions that don’t create greater economic challenges than the status quo?”

Those priorities mirror Gov.-elect Jerry Brown’s campaign pledges emphasizing frugality and local control — something many members of the new Legislature may know something about.

More than two dozen of the 117 lawmakers ran businesses; others managed charities or were members of city councils, county boards of supervisors or school boards. Some are former employees of groups that lobby the Legislature, including the California Teachers Assn., the California Restaurant Assn. and Consumer Attorneys of California.

The Legislature, which has three vacancies because of two deaths and one move to another office, also includes 19 attorneys, nine teachers, five college professors, four farmers, three engineers, two law-enforcement officers, two physicians, a family therapist and a 911 operator.

The new composition will be felt most in the state Senate, where business-friendly moderate Democrats gained seats in last month’s election. The shift — with moderates now accounting for up to one-third of the Senate Democrats — means more clout for business groups that have fought the body’s traditionally liberal agenda in the past.

In this era of term limits, 28 of those taking the oath of office Monday will be new to the Legislature.

“Somebody just walking into Sacramento’s political morass is going to be quite overwhelmed,” said Tom Hogen-Esch, a political scientist at Cal State Northridge.

All but one of the rookies are joining the lower house, where Pérez has been in office just two years. Members’ inexperience could complicate efforts to deal with the deficit and other intricacies of California’s government. And the state’s dire financial situation is likely to rule out many bills that would cost money or expand government, leaders said.

“I feel very strongly that the state Legislature and executive branch need to have a very focused agenda,” said Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento). “We need to be very aggressive to begin restructuring state government…. The state cannot deliver on all of the demands.”

Senate Democrats are proposing to put counties in charge of administering some public safety, human services and health programs worth up to $4 billion, along with the means to fund them. They include juvenile parole, jailing of low-level adult criminals, drug treatment for offenders, drug courts, programs to protect the elderly from abuse and child care to help parents who get off welfare.

The counties want a restructuring plan that “ensures that services will be effectively administered, funded and sustained,” John Tavaglione, a Riverside County supervisor and president of the California State Assn. of Counties, said in a letter to Brown and legislative leaders after the Nov. 2 election.

Democrats also want to focus on helping generate more private-sector jobs. The Legislature’s minority leaders share that goal, though their approaches might differ.

One goal must be to reduce government red tape so manufacturers can prosper, said Senate Republican leader Bob Dutton of Rancho Cucamonga.

“We need regulatory reform,” Dutton said. “We just keep piling on. You’ve got agencies that are totally out of control right now in California.”

Assembly Republican leader Connie Conway of Tulare said Republicans see an opportunity to shrink government and align programs with existing revenues.

“Each one of us has to do that in our own household, with our own budget, with our own life, so I’m hoping that we can get a little more real,” Conway said in an interview.

Republicans will have a tougher time affecting spending, after voters last month passed an initiative allowing budgets to be approved by a simple majority rather than a two-thirds majority. Democrats control both houses.

In the past, when Democrats needed some Republican votes to pass budgets, GOP members were able to demand that certain provisions be included in the spending plan. Now that negotiating power may shift to the newly expanded bloc of moderate Democrats.

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