Tuesday, February 1, 2011

A Strange Year

1989 was a strange and wondrous year. The warm glow of compromise and conciliation replaced what had previously been the chilly relations between Republican Governor Deukmejian and the Democrat-dominated Legislature.
With a key election year ahead and the specter of reapportionment looming, it's unlikely that sort of glasnost will surface again for awhile. Partisanship will run rampant as candidates struggle for victory and parties vie for dominance.
So how did all this cooperation come about and what did Californians get from it?
In January, Deukmejian released himself from political bondage. He announced that he would not run for a third-term. Without having to please his conservative constituency, Deukmejian became a different man.
He jumped into the legislative process. That allowed lawmakers to modify their bills to meet the governor's approval rather than learning he didn't like their idea through a veto.
Deukmejian also got off his intransigent ""no-new-taxes" stand. He's now head cheerleader for a constitutional amendment on the June ballot that will double the gas tax and lift the state's spending limit.
Although there's little fear that the governor will go socialist by the end of his term, he's certainly become more open to ideas that would have gotten a thumbs-down before.
The classic example is California's new ban on the sale or possession of 55 types of semi-automatic pistols, shotguns and rifles.
Granted, the massacre of five children in a Stockton school yard last January by a man armed with an AK-47 rifle gave the issue momentum, but Deukmejian quickly signaled his support for such a ban - which was what really got the bill passed and signed into law.
From the Legislature's point of view, 1989 was a chance to prove that special interests had not paralyzed them. Stung by scores of initiatives that took aim at the weighty issues - such as insurance reform - lawmakers had been unable to resolve, even partisan-minded pols such as Assembly Speaker Willie Brown promised to elevate policy over politics.
And, strangely enough, lawmakers delivered.
The gas tax increase, which Brown and others view as they year's biggest achievement, is a remarkable document. It is the first example in ages of lawmakers looking past their upcoming re-election campaigns. The proposal contains a 10-year plan with oodles of specifics on how the new money generated by the tax should be spent. It has been pitched as a ""blueprint for the 21st century."
Whether it's as fabulous as Deukmejian and the Legislature claim remains to be seen. But at least policymakers took a stab at looking down the road a ways.
Similarly, legislators used the $1.2 billion expected to be generated by the 25-cent-a-pack cigaret tax over the next year to shore up the state's sagging health-care programs.
Children's hospitals, underfinanced emergency rooms, trauma centers and crumbling county hospitals all are getting their first hefty cash injection in years.
And, in another burst of foresightedness, lawmakers and Deukmejian crafted a plan to cope with the state's mountains of trash that includes greater incentives for recycling and requirements that cities and counties cut down their waste - or else.
What makes these accomplishments even more amazing is the vast amount of time the Legislature spent trying to improve the ethical conduct of its members.
Not a bad year, all in all. Here's hoping it doesn't take until the last year of the next decade before we see more of the same.

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