Political Notebook

Dan Walters: Elections will top New Year

Since 2016 is a number divisible by 2, this is also an election year, and that biennial fact will dominate – and perhaps distort – California politics in the forthcoming months.

There’s even an outside chance that California will have a role in the presidential selection process beyond being a cash cow for White House aspirants – something that hasn’t happened since Jerry Brown was a hirsute young man.

While Californians will doubtless vote for the Democratic candidate, whomever he or she is, in the November election, the cast-of-thousands Republican field may still be large enough in June to make our primary election meaningful, even decisive, for the GOP.

Californians will also be filling a U.S. Senate seat and Democratic Attorney General Kamala Harris is the odds-on favorite to win – particularly if she faces one of three Republican hopefuls. But it’s possible, under California’s top-two primary system, that she and another Democrat, Rep. Loretta Sanchez, will duel in the fall, with the outcome hinging on how Republican, independent and Latino voters react.

Whether or not that occurs, the election season will still be the preoccupation of the state’s political pros, particularly a likely array of high-dollar ballot measures dealing with such yeasty issues as marijuana legalization, taxation, medical care and Brown’s twin water tunnels.

Brown himself hints that he may enter the ballot wars and spend some of his multi-million-dollar campaign treasury. But even if he doesn’t, the tab for the ballot measure campaigns will be in the tens of millions of dollars.

Half of the 40 state Senate seats and all of the Assembly’s 80 seats will be up this year, but only a relative handful are truly in play.

Democrats will be seeking to recoup from losses in 2014 that cost them their supermajorities in both houses, hoping that a higher presidential election turnout will work for them.

The underlying dynamic of the legislative elections, however, goes beyond Democrat vs. Republican to include whether a bloc of moderate, pro-business Democrats in the Assembly will continue to dominate its politics, and whether a similar bloc emerges in the Senate.

The Capitol’s biggest ongoing game pits business interests against labor unions, personal injury attorneys, environmentalists and consumer advocates over the latter groups’ expansive agendas.

Business has been doing fairly well, thanks in part to its patronage of moderate Democrats, and both adversarial groups want to expand the ranks of their acolytes.

Specific issues facing the Legislature in 2016 include a new drive to foster unionization of Uber drivers and others in the “gig economy,” Brown’s plea to raise taxes for highway repairs, whether to spend or save the extra billions of dollars now pouring into the state treasury, and a closely related squabble over how much reserves school districts should be required – or allowed – to maintain.

The outcome of none is certain.