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Skelton: State lawmakers adjourn on time, if not much else

  • State Sen Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, left, and Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, hug each other after the end of the two-year legislative session in the early hours of Saturday, Aug. 30, 2014 in Sacramento, Calif. Lawmakers worked into the early morning hours and completed their legislative business ahead of the Aug. 31. deadline.Steinberg will be leaving the Senate due to term limits.(AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

It was a moderately productive two-year session that the state Legislature wrapped up at the witching hour Saturday. Credit mainly voter-approved reforms. This is a new era in Sacramento.

But another factor also helped greatly: the devastating drought.

You’ve heard the political maxim: Never let a serious crisis go to waste. The lawmakers didn’t. They passed not only a major water bond proposal but hotly contested legislation to regulate California’s declining groundwater for the first time.

Legislators also capitalized on tragedy. Fatal shootings provided the inspiration to pass bills aimed at disarming potentially dangerous psychotic gun owners and to help police distinguish between real and toy firearms.

Meanwhile, embarrassing corruption scandals in the state Senate led to some modest political reforms. And, of course, an improving national economy coupled with Gov. Jerry Brown’s 2012 soak-the-rich tax increase meant the governor and legislators could resume smiling and spending, rather than crankily cutting.

Also, kudos for termed-out Senate leader Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, who always has been obsessed with deal-cutting and “getting something done” — most anything, but especially on mental health.

It may take awhile to completely sort out everything that ruling Democrats produced in the final hours while nurturing some so-called mushroom bills — they grew in the dark — before groggily calling it quits just after 3 a.m.

But let’s back up: The productivity was mostly due to a revamping of the system. It was the old gridlock-inducing system that had been causing legislative dysfunction.

First, four years ago, the California electorate lowered the legislative vote requirement for a budget from two-thirds to a simple majority. Presto: no more summer-long stalemates. The voters also approved a top-two open primary system that tends to produce more moderate legislators from both parties, reducing polarization. And voters turned legislative redistricting over to an independent citizens’ commission, creating more competition.

Lastly, starting with legislators first elected in 2012, term limits were loosened to offer lawmakers more time in one house to acquire expertise. All that said, the big water package never would have passed without the historic drought.


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