State Capitol

By John Howard
Posted 12.15.2013

For the followers of California politics, non-election years usually are yawns. Not so 2013: One would be hard pressed to find a year with more hot-button events fraught with statewide political ramifications, and even local stories — the trials in Bell, for example — capturing wide attention.

Here’s our roundup of the year’s top state political tales, a subjective compilation to be sure but one which was fun to put together. It was more fun to do when we had a print edition, but you can’t have everything.

The Calderon Raid – An FBI raid in June on the Capitol offices of state Sen. Ron Calderon, D-Montebello, disclosed a corruption investigation of the Capitol with links to southern California. The raid was the first since an August night in 1988, when agents with warrants searched several offices in a “sting” that wound up sending several lawmakers to prison. The basic FBI playbook doesn’t seem to have changed in 25 years: Then, undercover FBI agents pretended to be businessmen looking for tax breaks for their shrimp processing plant. This time around, an undercover FBI agent pretended to be a film producer looking for tax credits for the movie industry.

But other things are different. A dramatic picture of the Calderon probe was first reported, much to the chagrin of California-based media, by Al Jazeera America, the cable TV network. The story disclosed a 124-page FBI affidavit that detailed the elements of the sting, including $88,000 in purported bribes, meetings with the lawmaker and associates, a fun time in Vegas, the hiring of a family member at the studio and the hiring of the undercover agent’s “girlfriend” (actually an FBI agent) in a Capitol office. The investigation is continuing: Calderon has not been charged, and complained in federal court that the affidavit was deliberately leaked to smear him. Ron is part of a well-entrenched political family, started by brother Charles in the 1980s, continued by brother Tom who has since dropped his plans to run for a Senate seat and now represented by Ian Calderon, the young freshman Assembly member.

This story, as they say, has legs.

The State Budget – News about the state budget has been so bad for so long with a litany of deficits, shortfalls and gloomy projections, that an uplifting report is treated with suspicion. Barring surprises, California should end the 2014-15 fiscal year with a multibillion-dollar surplus and the outlook for more surpluses through 2020 is definitely positive, says the Legislative Analyst.

“The state has reached a point where its underlying expenditures and revenues are roughly in balance. With the exception of education funding, the remainder of state General Fund spending reflects a baseline budget,” the LAO noted. Another recession, a sharp spike in unemployment and a major increase in welfare payments could quickly sour the picture, but for now at least California is better off fiscally than it has been in years.

But political fights in Sacramento are as intense over fiscal excess as they are over scarcity, and spending the wrong way can lead to major problems, as in 1999-2001. The debate over spending part or all of the $6 billion in projected reserves already is under with Assembly proposing an estimated $3.6 billion in spending that includes Kindergarten for 4-year-olds. Maybe history’s lessons will be heeded as the budget debate cranks up in January.

State government may be happy, but out in the real world, times are not as good. Unemployment stands at 8.7 percent, down nearly four percentage points from the peak during the recession, but still high. Property values are soaring, which is good for the owners but not so good for people looking to buy an affordable home. College tuition is high, schools are crowded and property crime seems to be on the increase.

But it could be worse.

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