Dan Walters: Not all clashes at California's Capitol are partisan

dwalters@sacbee.comFebruary 10, 2013 

Much – probably too much – is being made of the newly minted Democratic supermajorities in the Legislature and the prospects of doing this or that.

While the Democrats' hegemony does take Republicans completely out of the picture, the Legislature's partisan conflicts have not been, contrary to popular belief, the primary impediments to effective governance.

Rather, they are the clashes of disparate interest groups – primarily economic in nature, but also cultural and geographic – that naturally coalesce in a state as large and diverse as California. And those differences remain, regardless of which party controls the levers of government at any one moment.

This year's two most important legislative issues – water and school finance – underscore the point that while party may play a role in what happens, or doesn't happen, in the Capitol, it's much less important than generally assumed.

Water has always been an issue that generates regional, as well as ideological, friction. Most of the state's water supply originates in the sparsely populated northeastern quadrant of the state and most of the demand comes from Central Valley farmers and Southern California's homes and industries.

For decades, the focus of the conflict has been the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, into which the water flows and from which the transshipments to the south are taken.

Gov. Jerry Brown is trying to jump-start the long-stalled project to bypass the Delta with an "alternate conveyance," and the water users to the south are all for it. It continues to face stiff opposition from those in the north and from environmentalists who believe that stabilizing supplies would be growth-inducing.

A bond issue is needed not to pay for the new conveyance, but rather to lubricate the ancillary projects tied to it. But the bond already passed by the Legislature is bloated and probably doomed if it goes on the ballot, so a new one must be drafted.

It provides a new forum for California's perpetual water wars, but there's not even a hint of partisanship in the battle. It's all about regionalism, economic interests and ideology.

The same dynamic is also evident in school finance. Brown wants to overhaul how state aid goes to schools, increasing support for school districts with large numbers of poor and/or English-learner students.

His formula would benefit large urban school districts and small rural districts, while suburban districts would get relatively less. The battle lines are forming along those subregional divisions – as well as ethnic ones – that have almost no correlation with party.

Potential effects run into the billions of dollars. Many lawmakers, in fact, will have school officials within their own legislative districts at odds over the issue.

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