The bus left city hall at 6 a.m. On board were 18 members of Leadership Merced's Class 25, a few citizens who paid for the privilege of tagging along on the group's "Government/Media Day" in Sacramento, and two members of Class 24, Dana Davidson of the city of Merced and Emma Loethen of Merced Active 20-30, the day's leaders.
As Jerry, the driver, steered the bus through the tule fog enveloping Highway 99, Nathan Quevedo, public information officer for the Merced County Office of Education and a part-time Sun-Star copy editor, provided the morning's briefings and, hopefully, a little entertainment for the trip.
Leadership Merced, sponsored by the Greater Merced Chamber of Commerce, brings in a group of potential community leaders one day a month for 10 months. They learn about the dimensions, processes and personalities important to our county's survival and progress. The editor was in last year's class, The Forevermores, and found the experience invaluable in understanding how our county works and who helps make it work.
And in making a bunch of new friends.
A special treat was sitting next to Scott Jason, for three years a sterling Sun-Star reporter who last fall began doing PR for UC Merced. Sorry, Patti Istas (his boss) -- Scott's still a newsie at heart.
Once in the Capitol we sat in several meetings with members of One Voice, a group that lobbies for our county's interests in the state and Washington, D.C. Mayor Bill Spriggs and others pitched our priorities to a variety of state officials.
They listed our most pressing needs: The Highway 152 bypass in Los Banos; replacing the Buhach Interchange on the 99 -- the only place traffic merges off the highway from the fast lane; the prevailing wage, based on high Bay Area scales that hurt our redevelopment efforts and add significant costs to projects in the Valley; and enterprise zones, which help us attract business.
If it sounds like a policy wonk's dream, that's because it is. But that's how the legislative sausage is made -- countless face-time meetings with state bureaucrats whose policy decisions help determine our future.
The state officials offered little in the way of specifics, let alone concrete solutions. But they all made suggestions on how to improve our chances of getting our priorities on the capital's radar and how to try to shoehorn the money to fund them.
We also got to watch part of a state Senate session from the public balcony. The senators, sitting beneath a portrait of a standing George Washington, and under a Latin phrase that means "A senator's duty is to protect the people's liberty," voted on several measures in regular and extraordinary sessions.
Democracy at work. Green buttons pushed as senators voted "aye," red for "no." Sen. Jeff Denham voted "no" five times (consistent with his limited government, antispending approach) and "aye" once (for a community college bill). He also mentioned Leadership Merced to the chamber and waved at us.
And he bought us breakfast on the bus from our own columnist Amanda De Jager Friedman's Piano Caffe. (Thanks to Publisher Debbie Kuykendall, the Sun-Star bought us lunch in the Capitol dining room.)
The most trenchant words came from Dwight Stenbakken, deputy director of the League of California Cities. As we ate, he told us the place we'd just visited, the Senate Chamber, and the Assembly, were "dysfunctional." Elaborating, he said, "We don't think we (California cities) can do a deal up there and expect it to stick."