By Jim Sanders
jsanders@sacbee.com
Published: Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2012 – 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2012 – 7:03 am

Happy new year, lawmakers?

Don’t bet on it.

The California Legislature will reconvene Wednesday amid a flood of red ink, a long history of partisan bickering, and a coming statewide election using newly drawn districts and a new way of choosing the top two candidates for legislative seats.

Key issues ranging from public employee pension changes to whether the state should regulate health-care insurance rates remain from last year, but political insecurity and fiscal instability are likely to make lawmakers reluctant to cast controversial votes, analysts say.

“I think they’ll be more interested in filling up their campaign accounts than filling up the law books,” said Jack Pitney, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College.

Political science professor Larry Gerston of San Jose State University agreed, saying, “It’s hard to imagine there will be meaningful legislation (passed).”

Not true, say the two Democratic leaders – Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez of Los Angeles and Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg of Sacramento.

Past votes can be used against incumbents as easily as current votes can, so there is nothing particularly chilling about this election year, Steinberg said.

“What you’ve seen over the last year is an ability for the governor and the Legislature to come together and make very tough decisions – and I think you’re going to see more of the same,” said Pérez.

For the first time ever, legislators will run this year in districts drawn by a 14-member citizens commission rather than by lawmakers. New maps have forced dozens of incumbents to move into neighboring districts or butt heads with colleagues in 2012 balloting.

Political prospects are made murkier by implementation of the state’s new “top-two” system for primary elections. Voters can cast ballots for any candidate who’s running, and the top two finishers – regardless of party – will square off in a general election.

Overshadowing everything at the Capitol, however, is the state’s projected budget deficit of about $12 billion through June 2013.

With Republicans adamant against raising taxes, legislative Democrats and Gov. Jerry Brown want voters to decide on the November ballot whether to dig deeper into their pockets for education and state services.

Pérez and Steinberg say they’re open to GOP budget ideas but are prepared to adopt a spending plan with only Democratic votes rather than spend months wooing Republicans.

“My view is you always have an open door and outstretched hand, but I don’t think we do anything as our main strategy that requires a two-thirds vote,” Steinberg said. “We’re gone down that path far too many times.”

Election-year gridlock could be a good thing in a state that needs fewer laws and more economic stability, Republicans say.

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