Viewer's Guide to California Politics in 2015

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What big political stories are coming to the Statehouse in 2015? (Craig Miller/KQED)

There's no crystal ball that can predict the best and biggest political stories in California for the new year, but there are some signs out there of what's ahead -- from Capitol clashes to the chess match of 2016 campaigns and beyond.

And so consider this a viewer's guide of sorts to what seems to be on the state's political horizon.

Jerry Brown begins his final run as governor on Jan. 5.
Jerry Brown begins his final run as governor on Jan. 5. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images) (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The Legacy: It seems fair to start with the guy in charge, who enters 2015 with perhaps the biggest question he's ever faced.

What does Gov. Jerry Brown want to be his lasting legacy? And as he enters the homestretch of his long political career, what will he do in hopes of creating that legacy?

Brown, 76, takes the oath of office on Monday as California's longest-serving governor. By the end of the first week, he will have made headlines on two contenders for the role of a legacy project: the ceremonial groundbreaking for high-speed rail in Fresno on Tuesday, and the release of his new state budget on Friday.


Neither will ever fully bear his imprint, though; budgets are the tedious work of every governor and a lot of legislators, and high-speed rail was in the works long before Brown returned to Sacramento.

But this governor has done more than any of his predecessors to get the train project on target, and 2015 may prove to be the most pivotal year yet. The Jan. 6 shovels-in-the-dirt ceremony certainly may raise the public expectations of success, and it also highlights the impending deadline -- now just two years away -- for spending existing federal dollars for the first phase of construction. And no, there's been no more federal money committed for the $68 billion San Francisco-to-Los Angeles train. That's Brown's biggest challenge, even if much of the cash isn't expected until after he leaves office. High-speed rail seems to be just the kind of "high-risk, high-reward" thing on which a legacy can be built ... or hobbled.

The governor will no doubt also continue his quest for budget prudence in 2015, even as state tax revenues are expected to again beat expectations. Will he insist on more debt repayment, and on launching new efforts to tackle long-term debt? Will he change course from 2013 and 2014 (even slightly) and allow Democratic legislators to expand funding for some safety-net social services programs?

And what about the $21 million in campaign cash Brown is sitting on, unspent in his re-election bid last year? Does he have a ballot measure idea up his sleeve that we will see in 2015?

Protesters take to the streets of San Francisco on Dec. 14, 2014. (Jeremy Raff/KQED)
Protesters take to the streets of San Francisco on Dec. 14, 2014. (Jeremy Raff/KQED)

From Ferguson to Staten Island ... to Sacramento? Legislators always react to headlines, and they were no doubt watching, along with everyone else, at the late 2014 intense debate over policing and communities of color. With Bay Area protests over the incidents in Missouri and New York gaining national exposure, you can count on legislative proposals in Sacramento.

Already we've seen a San Diego assemblymember introduce legislation to examine how police use body cameras in recording their work ... and we'll no doubt see much more. Of particular interest: How will Brown and Attorney General Kamala Harris engage in -- or retreat -- from the discussion? Both have carefully avoided commenting on the protests or the underlying issues for weeks.

Is 2015 the year Barbara Boxer decides to step aside? (Mandel Ngan/Getty)
Is 2015 the year Barbara Boxer decides to step aside? (Mandel Ngan/Getty)

Boxer Watch: No incumbent in California will be more watched for subtle body language hints about her future in 2015 than U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer. The 74-year old Democrat, now completing her third term in the U.S. Senate, has left a trail of hints that she may not seek another six-year term in 2016 -- the biggest being her relatively small campaign war chest compared with previous pre-election periods. Observers expect some kind of decision "early" this year.

Should Boxer decide to step aside, there's no shortage of high-profile California Democrats who may step forward. None have officially declared their interest (because none actually know what Boxer will do), but politicos have long buzzed about everyone from Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom to Attorney General Kamala Harris, former Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, even wealthy environmental activist Tom Steyer. Let's face it: This could be a heck of a battle, and it would all begin in 2015.

California's state Senate is under new leadership in 2015. (Justin Sullivan/Getty)
California's state Senate is under new leadership in 2015. (Justin Sullivan/Getty)

A New Era For Sacramento Leadership: 2015 marks the first year in power for the new leader of the Legislature's upper house, Senate President pro Tem Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles). The veteran legislator has played a high-profile role in several big political debates over the past few years, from the Proposition 39 tax-and-clean-energy effort to the legislative push for issuing driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants.

So what will De León focus on leading the state Senate? And what will his relationship with the governor look like, given Brown's penchant for rejecting boosts to some of the social service programs on which De León has led the charge? The L.A. Democrat also must successfully deal with financial challenges in the Senate that led to the laying off of staff in late 2014. And those ethics cases facing two ex-senators may still leave a residue of scandal in Sacramento.

UC President Janet Napolitano has upped the ante on 2015's UC funding debate. (Deborah Svoboda/KQED)
UC President Janet Napolitano has upped the ante on 2015's UC funding debate. (Deborah Svoboda/KQED)

Jerry vs. Janet: There's never been a president of the University of California with a more politically powerful resume than Janet Napolitano ... and (probably) never a governor more unwilling to cede his role in the UC's governance. That alone would make things interesting, but it's what happened at the end of 2014 that really qualifies the Jerry and Janet Chronicles as must-see political drama.

Napolitano used her political savvy to attempt a shift in the tuition hikes/state budget funding debate. Rather than simply asking for more money, she convinced UC regents to up the ante by pre-approving five years of tuition hikes if the money does't materialize from Sacramento. In some ways, it was a version of Brown's successful campaign for tax increases under Prop. 30. In the way that the governor told voters that Prop. 30's defeat would automatically trigger big spending cuts, Napolitano has told lawmakers their refusal to boost state spending on UC will trigger a big tuition hike.

But the former Arizona governor and U.S. Department of Homeland Security secretary is likely to find a pretty strong adversary in Brown -- if, of course, it gets that far. (And there are a number of people seeking to privately turn down the heat on this fight.)

Brown attends more UC regent meetings than he skips in his role as president of the board. He's also tapped two new regents in recent weeks, including his top legislative aide on Friday. And his proposed 2015-2016 state budget -- which will be released this coming Friday -- will offer the first big clues as to how he intends to respond to Napolitano's challenge.

Will legislators address a court ruling that says California's teacher tenure system is illegal? (Getty)
Will legislators address a court ruling that says California's teacher tenure system is illegal? (Getty)

Will Legislature Tackle Tenure? In our look back at the top political stories of 2014, we noted how the potential landmark ruling in Vergara v. California found a role in several candidate campaigns, but never really ignited a larger public discussion. And so, the question begs to be asked: Will lawmakers tinker with the state's teacher tenure rules before the courts consider whether to throw them out altogether?

California's top three elected officials on the subject -- the governor, the attorney general and the superintendent of public instruction  -- all decided to formally appeal the June 10, 2014, ruling that found tenure laws violate the constitutional equal protection rights of students.

But at the end of his 16-page decision, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu made clear what he thinks is the real solution:

"All this court may do is apply constitutional principles of law to the challenged statutes as it has done here and trust the legislature to fulfill its mandated duty to enact legislation on the issues herein discussed that passes constitutional muster, thus providing each child in this state with a basically equal opportunity to achieve a quality education."

While critics of the ruling -- that is, defenders of the existing tenure rules -- believe the case will be overturned by an appellate court, it will be worth watching to see if legislators don't take action on their own to revamp the system and avoid a showdown in court.

Budget Brickbats or Bouquets in Sacramento? And finally, a time-honored sure bet for political news: state budget fights. The past few years have made it clear that while times of fiscal stability produce fewer fights than times of crisis, there are still intense debates over how to spend money.

In November, the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office predicted another better-than-expected year of tax revenues -- $2 billion more than the enacted budget predicted through this July. Brown's own budget team has traditionally been more conservative than the LAO forecasters, which no doubt reflects their boss's interest in tamping down the spending expectations of Democratic legislators.

Still, there will be demands to spend money that's not legally promised to schools or to the new rainy day reserve fund. Welfare assistance, grants to the blind and disabled, and reimbursement rates for doctors who see Medi-Cal patients are all areas where spending has not been restored to formulas that existed prior to the Great Recession.

The governor pretty much held all the cards in his hands when dealing with the Legislature in his now completed third term in office. 2015 may still see him as the dominant player, but ever so slowly the tide could turn. Governors who no longer can run for election -- like presidents on the national level -- tend to see their power ebb, and no one knows when the "lame duck" phenomenon will kick in.


So ... get set ... 2015 is going to be a fun year to watch.