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February 6, 2014
Viewpoints: Olympic competition of the Capitol sorts

STATECAPITOL.JPG(Feb. 6 - By Bill Whalen, Special to The Bee)

With the Olympic Winter Games now underway, imagine how the two-week event might have played out had it been held in the higher elevations of Northern California, which of course it was back in 1960 at Squaw Valley.

First, forget about the picture-postcard white backdrop and thermal clothing. Though it's been cold and precipitous of late, it's also been a winter of hiking and outdoor picnicking in the Sierra - snow and ice being as anathema to the California existence as low taxes and affordable housing.

Then there's the political climate. The Golden State isn't ruled by a dictator, um, elected leader, who rides shirtless on horseback (please, Gov. Brown, don't go there). But as for a vibrant and competitive democracy, California statewide votes have all the drama of Soviet-era returns - or, for that matter, Putin's Russia.

The suggestion here: If it's winter games you crave, there's no need to hang on the feed from Sochi. Your state government is putting on as good a show as anything coming out of Russia.

That would include such competitions as:

The Legislative Biathlon. In Sochi, it's cross-country skiing and rifle-shooting. In the state Capitol, it's cross-purpose legislating - over-taxation, over-regulation - and shooting California's economy in the foot. With lawmakers in self-congratulatory mode for better fiscal and economic numbers, what's jarring is the Legislature's lack of a comprehensive job growth agenda, other than parochial pursuits - i.e., increasing the state's film and TV tax incentives (great for L.A.; little effect on the poverty-stricken Central Valley). For eight consecutive years, CEO Magazine has ranked California the worst state in the nation for business - taxation, workforce quality, living environment. The Legislature overlooking that ugly reality? Call it snow blindness.

The Gubernatorial Giant Slalom. Skiers don't paddle left and paddle right, as does California's intrepid governor, but they do zigzag their way down mountains. And that's been Jerry Brown's approach to this, his third term as governor. Not that the course for the next nine months requires Brown to navigate 70-or-so gates, but there are some tricky curves ahead: how to invest the budget surplus; selling a water bond to a wary electorate. Speaking of water, it's the great drought of 2013-14 and its associated hardships that represent a mogul in the governor's path to re-election. If the dry spell continues, Brown might want to look out for a snowball of collective voter misery building up behind him.

The Anti-Jerry Two-Man Bobsled. The ideal sport for candidates who are one part daredevil, a second part crash-test dummy. The question here: In a sled occupied by Assemblyman Tim Donnelly and former Bush Treasury aide Neel Kashkari - the two Republican gubernatorial hopefuls on the June ballot - who sits upfront and drives the sled? If it's Kashkari, the path is down the middle - the challenge being how to gain momentum. If it's Donnelly at the helm, the Republican sled veers decidedly to the right, seemingly destined for a wipeout that could affect both the driver and nearby spectators.

The GOP Skeleton. It's the winter sport that four out of five dental surgeons endorse: an individual lying facedown and headfirst, their chin just inches off the ground, whizzing down a frozen track on a small sled. Given the body's position, the rider's head and shoulders provide the torque to steer the sled. California's Republican Party likewise is on a downward descent - a 29 percent share of the state's electorate vs. 35 percent a decade ago. To the extent the party recovers from its current skeletal existence, it'll be because it learned to steer with its head as much as its heart.

Pension Reform Curling. Picture a large polished object slowly moving its way down the ice, a team of sweepers trying to affect its progress, and you have both a Canadian obsession (curling) and the California Democratic nightmare (pension reform). The topic may not make its way to the November ballot, thanks in part to some sweeping from the attorney general in the form of a clever rewrite of an initiative's title and summary. However, it may be back as soon as 2016. Curling aficionados call their sport "chess on ice." But getting pension reform approved by California voters? It might be checkmate - for now.

Gen-Next Mixed Ice Dancing. Open to a younger group of politicians who are patiently biding their time (publicly, at least) in their current offices until 2018 when, presumably, both California's governorship and a U.S. Senate seat will be available. Why ice dancing? Because it can be done either separately or in pairs, such as Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and Attorney General Kamala Harris. And, as that competition is four years into the future, remaining at the top of the field requires the ability to skate in slow circles - without unceremoniously crashing.

Enjoy the games - both the five-ring Olympic spectacle in Russia and the three-ring political circus closer to home.

Bill Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow and a former speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson. Reach Whalen at