SILICON VALLEY MERCURY NEWS. JANUARY 24, 2013. Gov. Jerry Brown will take center stage Thursday morning when he gives his State of the State address. But he'll have to keep his eye on restless Democratic lawmakers -- fresh off winning two-thirds majorities in both chambers of the Legislature -- who consider themselves equal partners in a brand new era of political dominance.
The irony is that the governor's own party's power surge could be as much of a headache for Brown as were the Republicans, who thwarted him on tax hike measures over the last two years.
With super-majorities in the Senate and Assembly for the first time since the 1880s, Democrats can override any Brown veto in what could turn into a test of wills between two branches of government controlled by the same party.
Brown has cautioned Democrats to avoid the political perils of overreaching by asking for more spending -- especially on the heels of securing more than $6 billion in new annual revenues when voters approved Proposition 30 tax hikes on the wealthy and on purchases. Democratic leaders have echoed some of Brown's caution, but it may not be easy to hold back rank-and-file legislators who in recent years have reluctantly agreed to billions of dollars in cuts to the poor, elderly and disabled.
"There is definitely a debate to be had," said Ben Tulchin, a Democratic pollster and political strategist. "I just can't believe all Democrats will sit there and go 'OK, I'm happy with Prop. 30 and I'll settle for the fact that deeper cuts were not made -- but we can't restore essential services.'"
The simmering tensions could boil over if Brown forcefully wields his veto pen, especially in light of a new Legislative Analyst's Office report that the state will collect $4 billion more in tax revenues in January than state finance officials had predicted.
The governor recently joked about the veto issue, saying: "I have more experience with veto overrides than any other governor."
Indeed, during his first two terms in the '70s and early '80s, Brown was overridden more times -- four -- than any other California governor in several decades. The most memorable time was when the Legislature overrode his veto of the death penalty in 1977.
Two weeks ago, Brown proposed a deficit-free $97.7 billion budget that spared most programs of cuts and offered new spending for K-12 schools, colleges and universities.
But Democratic legislators are eager to assert their will on an array of fiscal and social policy issues in 2013: taxes, gun control, health care, political and initiative reform and education spending -- not to mention restoring funding for safety net programs.
"We will not lack for a lot of work to do," said Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg.
Typically, a governor and legislators in his own party share similar goals. But Brown will be pursuing his own aggressive agenda, which includes reforming environmental regulations, getting the high-speed rail off the ground and building a new tunnel to move water from Northern California to Southern California. At the same time, he's promised to put the brakes on what he considers to be excessive demands of the Legislature.
Steinberg and Assembly Speaker John Pérez, D-Los Angeles, have said they have no plans to take on Brown, easily the most popular figure in Sacramento. "The way to make things work is to actually try to work together, not to try to engage in divisive activities and pursue a confrontational approach between the Legislature and the governor," Pérez said.
But some areas of funding -- dental care for adults, child care and the state's welfare program, CalWORKs -- are worth fighting for, Democratic legislators say.
The first budget hearings begin Thursday, immediately after Brown's address, and everything is on the table, including more spending, said Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley.
"We need to see what we can agree on and how we can begin to rebuild and restore after all these years of cuts," Hancock said. "There is such a need in the state for really good infrastructure that would put people back to work, for restoring the safety net, for child care to allow people to hold down jobs, education and the courts."
Legislators won't take the power of veto overrides lightly, Hancock said, "but it is a constitutional right of the Legislature, and I think it's there and it can be used."
The two-thirds majorities in the Senate and Assembly will give Democrats a chance to move ballot measures and tax increases or fees without Republican support. Already, a handful of proposals have been introduced to tweak Proposition 13 to allow voters to approve local parcel taxes for schools and libraries with less than a super-majority. One bill would loosen up restrictions on raising commercial property taxes; others would hike tobacco and alcohol taxes.
Steinberg is seeking the return of the "indirect initiative," eliminated by the Legislature in the mid-'60s. It would give the Legislature a chance to change measures before they went on the ballot, though initiative sponsors could reject lawmakers' advice.
"I don't think we should get rid of the initiative process. I think it serves an important purpose," Steinberg said. "But I think we need to tie it in a much more effective way with the governor and the Legislature, with representative government."
He also wants to give the Legislature the power to place taxes on the ballot with a majority vote, rather than the two-thirds barrier that stymied Brown's attempt in 2011 and forced him to seek tax increases through an initiative.
Republicans will essentially be bystanders, unable to block taxes or anything else. Their only hope is that they can create pressure on a handful of Democrats elected in more conservative districts with the help of business groups.
Indeed, Democrats have the votes to do it all. It's a matter of whether they can avoid being tripped up by their own levers of power.