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With a Supermajority, California Democrats Begin to Make Plans

12/18/2012

The New York Times - December 16, 2012

The Democratic Party has controlled the California Legislature for a nearly unbroken stretch of 42 years. Yet control goes only so far: it takes two-thirds of the Legislature to enact a host of important legislation in this state, meaning that even the diminished Republican Party has been able to easily frustrate Democratic ambitions.

But with a swell of electoral victories in November, the Democratic Party has now crossed that boundary and controls two-thirds of both the Senate and the Assembly, giving it the kind of unfettered power that no party has had here for 80 years.

This does not appear to be a passing advantage. Even Republicans say that changes in electoral demographics mean that, with the exception of a few brief lapses caused by vacancies, Democrats could hold a supermajority at least through the end of the decade.

Yet in the “be careful what you wish for” department, Democrats are beginning to confront the struggles and complications that come with being in charge of the store. This authority came at least two years earlier than most Democrats had projected. And it is unleashing years of pent-up Democratic desires — to roll back spending cuts, approve a bond issue to rebuild the state’s water system, amend the state’s tax code, revamp California’s governance system — that had been largely checked by the Republican minority.

At the same time, it is stirring concerns from Democrats, among them Gov. Jerry Brown, that the situation may inspire an overreach that could make the party’s reign brief. By contrast, some Democrats argue that handled correctly, the next two years could provide an opportunity to lock in long-term control.

“The center of gravity of the Democratic Party will be restraint, but some people can’t help themselves,” Mr. Brown said in an interview. “The supermajority is not a permanent condition. It’s something that can be lost far more easily than it can be gained.”

The demand became apparent even before the new Legislature was sworn in this month. State Senator Ted W. Lieu, a Democrat, proposed reinstating an automobile registration fee that was repealed under Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. That fee was a rallying point of what many saw as excessive taxation here; its elimination created a $4 billion revenue shortfall. Mr. Lieu pulled back at the urging of Democratic leaders.

“Democrats have unrestricted, unchecked power in the executive and the legislative branch today — and they have not had that for decades,” said James L. Brulte, a former state lawmaker running for state Republican leader. “If you are a Democrat, the good news is that your party is 100 percent in charge of state government. If you’re a Democrat, the bad news is that you don’t get to blame anybody else if things go wrong. So Democrats own it.”

Darrell Steinberg, the president pro tem of the Senate, said that he appreciated the risks and that Democrats would not overstep. Still, he said, this was a chance to address years of deep spending cuts and to put before voters measures to change a government and tax structure that analysts from both parties blame for much of California’s paralysis.

“We get the overreach warning: we have heard it, and we acknowledge it,” Mr. Steinberg told lawmakers at their swearing-in ceremony. “But frankly, I think you can focus too much on overreach because there is an equally compelling danger. It is the danger of being so cautious, so worried about creating controversy, that we fail to take advantage of unprecedented opportunities.”

In a later interview, Mr. Steinberg added: “There are a whole host of things that the two-thirds majority gives an opportunity to talk about. I believe in the two-party system. But are we prepared to use our supermajority if the Republicans choose not to participate? Yes.”

The Democratic ascension has arrived as California emerges — if tentatively — from a prolonged recession and government retrenchment. And it has come as lawmakers and outside analysts have increasingly come to view California’s problems as a result of flaws with its governance.

This new authority comes with a markedly different Legislature, filled with dozens of first-time lawmakers, empowered by a change in term-limit laws that allow them to stay longer and develop areas of expertise, and elected under a nonpartisan election system intended to produce moderation and compromise.

It is hard to think of another state as solidly Democratic, after an election that left Republicans relegated to the sidelines.

“A supermajority is problematic for California,” said Connie Conway, the Assembly Republican leader. “I hope voters understand what they’ve done. I expect a full-out assault on the taxpayers of California.”

Under California law, a two-thirds vote is required to put initiatives before voters to change the State Constitution or raise taxes. That requirement is an outgrowth of Proposition 13, the property tax reduction initiative passed in 1978.

Many Democrats said a top priority was figuring out a way to remove deep spending cuts made to education and other state services, which could mean finding new revenue.

“We do need to take stock,” said Ellen M. Corbett, the Senate Democratic leader. “We do need to take a look at things we have cut that may impact our ability to grow the economy.”

Senator Mark Leno, a Democrat, proposed putting on the ballot an initiative that would allow school districts and cities to pass a parcel tax increase with 55 percent of voters, down from the two-thirds requirement in Proposition 13. Lawmakers said they were also reviewing business tax exemptions they agreed to in order to win Republican votes.

Another Democrat, Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, said, “What we want is to look carefully to see what kind of tax do we have like that, that are costing our schools, costing our taxpayers and not benefiting our economy.”

Proposition 13 has long been blamed for California’s financial turmoil and inequitable tax system, but its political popularity has made lawmakers wary of touching it.

Now that the Democrats have a supermajority, there has been a growing call for lawmakers to put an initiative before voters to revise Proposition 13, either by eliminating the two-thirds requirement or creating a split tax roll, which would protect residential property owners but remove protection from commercial and industrial properties.

“It’s Time to Adjust Prop 13,” said the headline over a column by George Skelton in The Los Angeles Times on Thursday.

Mr. Brown recoiled at the suggestion.“There’s a lot of talk about that,” Mr. Brown said. “With water, energy, school funding formulas, higher education, the whole implementing of Obama health care, we have lots on our plate. With these kind of hot-button issues, I’d be very surprised if there were any serious attempt to deal with them in the near term.”

This new Democratic dominance is also not necessarily good news for the state’s Democratic governor. He no longer has the foil of the Republican minority. And Mr. Brown, whose fiscally moderate views have at times clashed with those of his Democratic colleagues, now faces something he has not faced before: a Legislature with enough votes to override him.