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Super majorities give California Democrats power to tax.

11/08/2012

Mercury News.com – November 8, 2012

SACRAMENTO -- The passage of Proposition 30 was not only a deeply personal triumph for Gov. Jerry Brown, who spent the last several weeks campaigning furiously for his tax-hike initiative. It was also a symbolic end to a 34-year period in California history, which began when the state's voters stoked anti-tax prairie fires across the nation by passing Proposition 13.

But as Proposition 30 began to cruise toward victory late Tuesday night, Brown found himself the beneficiary of an unexpected gift: Democrats had likely captured a two-thirds majority of both chambers of the Legislature, at once turning the Republicans into an irrelevant minority.

It was a remarkable turn of events. Only a couple of days ago, Brown's tax-hike measure seemed headed toward defeat, and his legacy was in doubt. But now the reign of the 74-year-old governor was suddenly rejuvenated -- though at the same time facing new dangers inherent in one-party rule.

"As is always the case with newfound political power, there's a question of restraint vs. excess," said Bill Whalen, a Hoover Institution fellow and top aide to former Gov. Pete Wilson. "Christmas came early for the Democrats, or Halloween came late: So do they eat all their candy, or do they take a more sensible approach?"

Ethan Rarick, director of the Matsui Center at UC Berkeley's Institute of Governmental Studies, said "the logical area where they might overreach is taxes and spending. But now that they have the ability to do what voters just did for them, I don't think they will raise taxes."

Added Rarick: "The only danger I can see is that they don't have Republicans to blame when things go wrong. Before, they had a crutch where they'd say Republicans won't let us balance the budget. Now they're in charge. They can do what they want, and voters will presumably hold them responsible."

With a two-thirds majority, Democrats can increase taxes without asking voters or Republicans; put a constitutional amendment on the ballot; override the governor's vetoes and suspend the minimum funding guarantee for K-12 schools.

In an Election Night surprise, Assembly Democrats, now with a 54-26 majority, picked up two extra seats in hotly contested races. Challenger Sharon Quirk-Silva defeated, by 1,023 votes, incumbent Assemblyman Chris Norby, R-Fullerton, in the newly drawn 65th district. And Rudy Salas, in the open 32nd District in Kings and Kern counties, won with a 268-vote margin over Pedro Rios.

Republican leaders have conceded both races.

As expected, Senate Democrats picked up three new seats -- with a chance to pick up a fourth -- to take a 28-12 majority.

Whalen likened the newly enhanced Democratic power to when Gray Davis was elected in 1998 as the first Democratic governor in 16 years. He joined a "pent-up" Democratic Legislature in what critics have called a wild spending spree and was eventually ousted in a 2003 recall by Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger.

But Whalen believes Brown is more likely to serve as a moderate check on the left-leaning Legislature, saying he's not going "to turn California into downtown San Francisco."

"Jerry Brown ran as a candidate of restraint; he ran as a cheapskate; he's not a wild-eyed liberal." Whalen said.

At a news conference Wednesday, Brown reiterated his pledge to not sign any tax increase without a vote of the people, setting up a potential clash with legislative Democrats who may be eager to fill more funding holes.

But he said "we're not into the threat game here," and that he wasn't "drawing lines in the sand" with veto threats.

Brown, who was governor for two terms in the late 1970s and early '80s, called his relationship with the Legislature "better than it ever has been in my 10 years."

Proposition 30 grabbed 54 percent of the vote, but Brown refused to call the victory a mandate. But, he said, it "vindicated my confidence that the people of California can make very sound judgments. ... Given the massive opposition and skepticism about whether or not state government can handle any more money, I see this as a vote of confidence."

Voters who backed Brown's measure said they were distressed over the deteriorating condition of public education in California, tracing it to the passage of Proposition 13, which took an ax to property taxes in 1978.

"When I was growing up, the schools were great, and it seems very unfair that today's kids haven't had that advantage," said Charles Ogle, a Menlo Park tool maker. "We have seen the bitter fruits that Prop. 13 has visited on our land."

Kit Miller, of Palo Alto, said, "It's sad we have lost so many years of revenue for the schools. But now we can make California a leader in education again."

Business leaders say they hope Democrats exercise caution.

Democrats "have been salivating to raise taxes," said John Kabateck, executive director of the California chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business. "A super majority could give a tax-and-spend majority in the Capitol carte blanche to feed their spending addiction even further."

Senate leader Darrell Steinberg and Speaker John Perez said they had no plans to raise taxes right on the heels of Proposition 30 passing. But, Steinberg said, there is pent-up demand among Democrats to restore programs that have taken massive cuts in the past four years.

"We have starved public investment quite enough," Steinberg said. "We will look for opportunities to make up for what has been lost, but we need to do so in a smart way ... and with humility."

If legislators will talk about taxes at all, Steinberg said, it will be about broadening the tax base with tax reform.

Assembly Republican Leader Connie Conway, R-Visalia, warned Democrats against overreaching.

"The voters have spoken, and I respect the voice of the people," Conway said. "By no means should the majority party interpret these results as a mandate. Millions of Californians opposed the governor's tax hikes and shared our view that job creation is the best revenue generator for the state.

"Republicans will hold the majority party accountable for delivering their promise to voters that these tax hikes will go to our classrooms and not big government."