Loretta Sanchez

California Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Santa Ana, announces her candidacy for U.S. Senate during a news conference on May 14, 2015, in Santa Ana. (Sam Gangwer/The Orange County Register)

Capitol Alert
By Alexei Koseff
akoseff@sacbee.com
December 31, 2015 6:00 AM

  • Sanchez, Newsom are elected officials on the list
  • Senate race, initiatives the focus in 2016
  • Taxes, plastic bags among key issues

As 2016 dawns in California, politics looms large. Dozens of initiatives have been filed for what could become a November ballot of record size. State political parties are calculating their odds in nearly 175 legislative and congressional races. Some candidates for statewide office in 2018 are already campaigning.

Policy-making marches on. New leadership at the Capitol and in key agencies of the Brown administration could bring major changes in priorities.

In front of the cameras and behind the scenes, these seven figures will have big roles in state politics over the next 366 days.

Charles Munger Jr. keeps mum about his millions

It’s nice to have a multimillionaire on your side in an expensive election fight, especially if that multimillionaire is Charles Munger, Jr.

The Palo Alto physicist has made a habit of pouring his fortune into conservative causes and candidates, a vital boost for the California Republican Party’s declining coffers. Munger spent $15.3 million in the 2014 election cycle and $43.6 million in 2012, when he unsuccessfully led the charge against Proposition 30, a ballot measure that temporarily raised sales taxes and income taxes on upper-income earners.

“He’s courted heavily by everybody on everything,” said GOP consultant Kevin Spillane, who worked on Munger’s independent spending campaign to defeat Tim Donnelly in the 2014 gubernatorial primary. “He’s hugely important to the center-right forces in California.”

He’ll have at least one issue to get behind: his own proposed initiative with former Republican lawmaker Sam Blakeslee that would prohibit the Legislature from passing any bill until it’s available on the Internet in its final form for 72 hours.

Last-minute deals without public disclosure, he argues, are “the way special interests get their dirty work done.”

The measure would also put a video recording of every public legislative meeting online and allow anyone to make their own cell phone recordings. Munger said he wants to bring the public into the process more, so that lawmakers aren’t simply “slamming a rubber stamp on something.”

“It gives everybody a chance to weigh in,” he said.

With unions lining up to pass myriad liberal priorities in 2016 – including an extension of those Proposition 30 taxes – allies and foes alike are eager to see where else Munger might play. For now, he refuses to say.

“I can’t tell you about anything else I might or might not be getting involved with,” Munger said. “You can guess about that.”

Michael Picker promises to bring ‘public’ back to Public Utilities Commission

Michael Picker is feeling “a lot of pressure to fix a lot of things” at the California Public Utilities Commission.

A former renewable energy adviser to Gov. Jerry Brown, Picker took over as head of the agency this year. Embattled former President Michael Peevey chose not to seek a third term amid a growing scandal regarding secret dealings with the utilities he oversaw.

Pressure came in particular from the Legislature, which unanimously passed six bills this session that would have appointed an inspector general to oversee the commission, limited private communications on commission matters, and made it easier to bring a public records lawsuit against the commission, among other changes.

Brown vetoed all of them, deeming the proposals “unworkable.” But consumer advocates continue to agitate for Picker to prohibit private communications in rate-setting procedures, which they argue hurts ratepayers by allowing utility companies to present their data to the commission without being challenged on it.

“You need to give all the parties an opportunity to compete on a level playing field,” Mark Toney, executive director of The Utility Reform Network, said. “He has an opportunity to do that on his own, without legislation.”

Picker said he didn’t completely agree with the bills, which he felt conflicted with one another, but is working to “create a much more accountable system.” Rather than banning private communications, commissioners are now crafting new codes of conduct and training. How they keep track of contact with outside parties is among the topics.

Chief of staff to former Sacramento Mayor Joe Serna from 1992 to 1999, Picker still lives in town and travels to San Francisco weekly for work. With his proximity to the Capitol, he plans to get more involved with the Legislature to “help them understand the challenges we face.” Picker said the commission, created in 1911 to regulate the railroads, can feel stuck in the world of a century ago, struggling to keep up with the pace of technological change.

“It’s one of the most frustrating places I’ve ever worked,” he said.

Picker particularly wants to open the commission’s technical and expensive decision-making processes to more people: “How do we actually make the PUC a more accessible place?”

Loretta Sanchez doesn’t stick to the script

When U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer announced her retirement in January, most fellow Democrats cleared a path for presumptive frontrunner Attorney General Kamala Harris to replace her.

Not Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Orange, who jumped into the race four months later boldly touting two decades of federal experience and Spanish fluency that she noted Harris does not have. She draws a striking contrast to the more reserved Harris, with off-the-cuff remarks that have already gotten her into trouble on the campaign trail, most recently for citing disputed estimates about the number of Muslims who want a caliphate.

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