SACRAMENTO -- Maybe Californians should start calling their Legislature the anti-Congress.
The legislative session that ended in the wee hours of Saturday morning proved to be one of the most bipartisan and productive in years.
Lawmakers struck bipartisan deals on a $7.5 billion water bond and a "rainy day fund" that will be put before voters in November; delivered a hold-the-line-on-spending budget that started shoring up the troubled teachers' pension system; and passed ground-breaking insurance regulations that will encourage the growth of app-based ride-sharing companies rather than drive them out of business. And the bickering between the parties was kept to a minimum.
"Both Democrats and Republicans have begun to understand that the kind of polarization we see in Washington these days is not going to make it in California," said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a veteran political analyst at the University of Southern California. "California Republicans in particular are beginning to understand that if they are going to survive as a party, they have to move to the center."
To be sure, there were the occasional rumbles. Some Central Valley lawmakers of both parties are furious about the historic package of groundwater legislation -- making California the last Western state to regulate pumping from aquifers -- that narrowly cleared the Legislature in the session's final hours. Some urged the governor to veto the bills and convene a special session to deal with the incendiary issue.
But what was really remarkable about the session was "how quickly both the Legislature and the electorate moved past the scandals that we saw at the Capitol just months ago," said Dan Schnur, who directs USC's Unruh Institute of Politics.
Indeed, it was a shockingly tough year for Senate Democrats. Sens. Ron Calderon, of Montebello, and Leland Yee, of San Francisco, were indicted in separate corruption cases. Yee's case involves lurid allegations of criminal underworld connections and an international arms-trafficking conspiracy. Another Democrat, Sen. Ron Wright, of Inglewood, was convicted of lying about living outside his district.
The ethics reforms ultimately passed by the Legislature didn't quite match the early rhetoric from Senate and Assembly leaders after the scandals broke.
Although there were lots of speeches about the need for radical change, the most sweeping ethics proposal quietly died months ago. Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Pacoima, had sought to prevent candidates for statewide office from accepting campaign contributions during the final weeks of the legislative session or while they're negotiating the budget. The Senate created a fundraising blackout period for its members, but the rules don't apply to the Assembly -- and senators who violate them face no legal penalties.
The need for such a blackout period became painfully clear last week during the 11th-hour back-and-forth over banning single-use plastic shopping bags -- a debate that was largely driven by special-interest money pouring in from bag manufacturers.
But lawmakers did approve bills limiting the value of gifts they can accept and barring them from attending sports and entertainment events for free. Other ethics measures passed this year banned fundraisers at lobbyists' homes, increased campaign finance reporting requirements, and forced lawmakers to disclose the names of groups that pay for their travel.
And overall, the mood in the Capitol was a stark contrast from a year ago, when bills increasing the state's minimum wage, granting driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants, and imposing gun controls were fought down to the wire, mostly along partisan lines.
The Golden State's "paddle to the left, paddle to the right" governor, Jerry Brown, worked behind the scenes as broker-in-chief to forge several major bipartisan compromises this year.
The governor pushed for a slew of last-minute changes during a marathon water-bond negotiating session early this month. The compromises were key to winning support from Republican and Central Valley lawmakers who had threatened to block anything lacking sufficient funding for water storage. More than a third of the bond -- $2.7 billion -- is now dedicated to construction of dams, reservoirs and other storage solutions long sought by Republicans. And projects to protect rivers, lakes and watersheds favored by Democratic constituencies will get $1.5 billion if voters OK the bond in November.
The accord Brown reached with GOP leaders for the rainy-day fund will ensure more consistent deposits into the state's "savings account," place stricter rules on when cash can be withdrawn from the reserve, and require the state to use some of the money it saves to reduce debt.
"Whether or not you happen to agree with Brown on the issues, it's clear that his experience in office has taught him how to deal with the Legislature much more effectively" than during his first two terms in the 1970s and early '80s, USC's Schnur said.
Schnur said the year's biggest disagreements among legislators "were over bills most relevant to special interests, as opposed to the broader electorate. The fighting is intense, but it's not nearly as public when you're fighting on behalf of a donor rather than your constituents."
Among the biggest winners this year were environmentalists, who got their mojo back after a series of embarrassing legislative defeats in 2013. The groundwater and plastic-bag ban bills were hard-fought, last-minute wins. Also passing overwhelmingly in the final days of the session was a bill aimed at putting a million new electric vehicles on the road in the next decade.
And the first-in-the-nation bag ban found success after more than a dozen previous failures, in part because of Padilla's compromise with business interests to make $2 million from the state's recycling fund available to California plastic bag makers who want to retool their operations and instead make reusable bags that meet the bill's standards.
Larry Gerston, a San Jose State political science professor, said all the deals and compromises reflected "the legitimate concern on the part of the Legislature that they did not want to jeopardize jobs at a time when this economy is just starting to show signs of recovery."
California lawmakers had plenty to argue about this year, but the bickering was kept to a minimum, and the legislative session saw several major examples of bipartisan cooperation, including passage of:
A $7.5 billion water bond, to be judged by voters in November as Proposition 1
A rainy-day fund deal that expands and protects the state's "savings account." It will appear on the ballot as Proposition 2.
Ground-breaking insurance requirements that will encourage the growth of ride-sharing companies like Uber, Lyft and Sidecar
A flurry of bills
Here are some of the bills that the Legislature sent to Gov. Jerry Brown's desk in the final hours of the legislative session:
AB 1739 by Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento; SB 1168 by Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills; SB 1319 by Pavley. Package of legislation establishes framework to regulate groundwater pumping for the first time in California history.
SB 270 by Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Pacoima. Bans single-use plastic bags in grocery stores statewide as of next July. Shoppers will be encouraged to bring their own bags, but they'll be able to buy paper bags or thick plastic bags for a minimum of 10 cents each.
AB 1522 by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego. Requires most employers to provide workers with at least three paid sick days per year, but excludes workers in the state's In-Home Supportive Services program.
AB 1014 by Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley. Lets families and police ask courts for a restraining order to seize firearms from a mentally ill person showing signs of a risk of violence. Bill was inspired by May's deadly rampage at UC Santa Barbara.
AB 1839 by Assemblyman Mike Gatto, D-Los Angeles. Expands tax breaks for Hollywood film productions.
AB 13 by Assemblyman Rocky Chávez, R-Oceanside. Requires the California State University and California community colleges -- and requests the University of California -- to grant in-state tuition for all students using the GI Bill.
SB 699 by Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo. Requires the California Public Utilities Commission to adopt rules compelling utilities to protect the state's electric power grid from vandalism and attack.