Let's call this the bookends to your end-of-the year rite of passage: a guide to what's been going on in California politics and a sense of where we're likely headed.
There's often a sense that non-election years in the world of politics are less exciting, that all the good stuff happens with voters poised to take matters into their own hands. 2013 was a clear case of how that conventional wisdom is dead wrong. Having said that, the new year could be even more fascinating.
And so, in the spirit of famous pairings -- Batman and Robin, the Captain and Tennille, Reese's peanut butter and chocolate -- here are five of the biggest California politics stories from 2013 and five to watch in 2014.
Five that mattered in 2013...
5. Taking Aim At Gun Laws: The tragedy at a Connecticut elementary school happened just three weeks before the beginning of the 2013 legislative session, and it seemed to be the final straw for Democrats who had long wanted tougher gun laws, even in a state with a reputation for the nation's toughest restrictions. While some assumed the large stack of bills -- 17 in all -- would be whittled down before reaching the desk of Gov. Jerry Brown, Dems decided to send them all to the governor and let him sort it out. And Brown has a decidedly hard-to-read history on gun issues. In the end, he signed some -- IDs for ammunition purchases, limits on the size of ammo clips, registering of long guns -- while vetoing the most high profile of the bunch: a ban on semi-automatic rifles with detachable magazines. It was the most contentious season of gun debate at the state Capitol in years, ending with some gun rights advocates threatening a recall of legislators who voted for the bills.
4. Come On Baby, Cover Me: Your take on the relative success or failure of the biggest government program in a generation depends a lot on your politics, but it's indisputable that California remains the most important state in America for the Affordable Care Act (ACA). With the Golden State being home to more Americans than anywhere -- both those covered and not covered by health insurance -- a lot of attention was paid to the workings of California's own 'Obamacare' exchange, Covered California. The agency experienced fewer problems than those seen on the national level, but there were nonetheless controversies. Most notable: state officials rejecting President Barack Obama's requests of extra time for those whose insurance plans were non-ACA compliant, and his push to extend the enrollment deadline beyond Dec. 23. By year's end, Covered California said it had enrolled hundreds of thousands. Also a very big deal in 2013: the ACA's expansion of Medi-Cal, the health care system for low-income citizens.
3. Bullet Train's Boom and Blues: 2013 was supposed to be an important year for California's ambitious quest to build a north-to-south high speed train system. And it was... but not for all of the reasons that were expected. Train officials didn't deliver the most symbolic item on their menu: an actual start to construction on the first short segment between Madera and Fresno. But they did select the builders of that first segment and they kept on schedule in the preps for the other early segments. Still, the biggest high speed rail headline may be the ruling by a Sacramento judge that the agency's business plan must be reworked before the state can sell any of the 2008 voter-approved seed money bonds. That's left train officials in the delicate position of relying on federal dollars that were supposed to be matched with state cash... while still assuring everyone they can find the additional tens of billions dollars the project will actuallyneed to become reality.
2. L'Affaire Calderon: It was a quiet Tuesday afternoon in June when statehouse staffers first saw them -- FBI agents entering the office of state Sen. Ron Calderon, D-Montebello. Six months later, the Calderon story has become the single biggest Sacramentocorruption scandal in a generation. And what really supercharged the story was the late October revelation of an up-to-then sealed FBI affidavit, which alleges Calderon accepted bribes in exchange for legislative favors -- including some at the behest of an undercover agent posing as a Hollywood movie executive. If that wasn't enough, weeks later Calderon filed court documents saying he was pressured to wear a hidden microphone and get the goods on Senate leaders. Even if the allegations prove untrue, the story shattered the notion that corruption investigations in Sacramento are a thing of the past.
1. The Budget Goes Boom: No story is likely to have a longer lasting impact as 2013 ends than the one we all learned about in late fall -- California's long streak of budget deficits looks to be over. The independent Legislative Analyst's Office projection of multi-billion dollar surpluses beginning in 2014 and lasting for several years could dramatically reshape the political and policy landscape... and prove to be both Gov. Jerry Brown's biggest gift and his greatest challenge.
Out with the old, in with the new... five to watch in 2014...
1. As Jerry Goes, So Goes California: The governor continues to be the single most important politician to watch in the Golden State as 2014 arrives, and his agenda will largely drive everyone else's. Brown's success in his third stint as chief executive has seemed to be a combination of his power to keep Democrats in line, his ability to woo voters to ratify a temporary tax, and a generally improving national economy. But the pressure on the veteran pol will be particularly intense in 2014, especially with a statewide election season just months away. The governor's famous frugality meshed well with his political narrative of economic recovery these past three years. But those budget surpluses are going to force him in 2014 to defend either his resistance to restored spending... or his abandonment of deeper debt reduction and savings. All of this begins in earnest in just days with his delivery on a budget plan on Jan. 10. Brown begins 2014 with good job approval ratings and few political peers. How he plays the next few weeks of the year could set the course for everything that happens in the months to come.
2.Ballot Measure Bingo: As recently as this fall, a few prominent political consultants looked at the tea leaves and concluded 2014 wasn't going to be a barn burner of a year in the world of ballot measures. Things look a lot different, though, as the new year arrives. Hospital fees, insurance regulation, medical malpractice (a theme, there, it seems)... one or more referendum measures... maybe a do-over of a hugely expensive tobacco tax fight... a bigger Legislature or multiple Californias... campaign finance changes... budget spending reserves... a water bond. These and more could all appear on the ballot come November.
3. Water War 2014: Political watchers already knew the new year would include a lot of wrangling over water issues, with the governor's Delta tunnels project and a multi-billion dollar water bond both teed up for big developments. But the issue of a reliable and robust water supply for thirsty Californians looks as though it's going to get very real, very soon. 2013 is ending as the driest year on record in the Golden State. The first measurement of the Sierra snowpack on Jan. 3 is expected to provide dismal news. And some forecasters are already invoking California's historically bad drought of 1976-1977 in describing the year ahead. From southern California suburbs to north state water providers... this has got all the markings of a bitter, angry year over who gets water, and who doesn't.
4. The Calderon Effect: Most people expect some 2014 resolution the FBI corruption investigation that's kept a relatively low-profile legislator in the headlines for the past six months. And the impact of the case -- regardless of where it leads -- could be profound. For starters, the Calderon investigation has raised new questions about the sharpness of the teeth in California's existing campaign laws. Beyond that, the Democrat's current status... stripped of his committee assignments and fingering other prominent senators as a focus of investigation... could create some awkward moments in the upper house. And should the investigation grow even wider, what would the electoral implications be? Would voters be looking for someone to punish?
5. A Home For Inmates, A Date For A Train? And finally, two stories that also made the 2013 list but will keep providing big political headlines in 2014. First, the winter and spring of 2014 are likely to see some sort of major development in the decade-plus saga over California prisons. Either the three federal judges calling the shots extend the state prison population deadline to 2016 -- which would be a huge victory for lawmakers and prison officials -- or they stick to Apr. 18 as the date to shave the prison population down by about another 7,000 inmates and leave officials to invoke their plans for shipping those inmates to private and local lockups. And on high speed rail, 2014 will either lead to some tangible, solid construction and financing work... or a rising chatter in Sacramento, Washington, D.C. and elsewhere that California can't pull off what already looks to be the biggest public works project in U.S. history.