California Democrats’ Statehouse Powers Tempt Lawmakers

When California’s Legislature convenes with newly elected members next week, Democrats will hold a two-thirds majority, giving them the power to raise taxes, boost spending and ask voters to change the constitution.

Not since 1933 has one party held a so-called supermajority in both chambers. That power, immune to both Republican opposition and Democratic Governor Jerry Brown’s veto, may last only until April, as certain lawmakers seek other offices.

The historic opportunity has Democrats dusting off their most ambitious ideas, previously impossible to pursue because of firm Republican barriers, such as altering Proposition 13, the 1978 initiative that capped property levies and spurred a national anti-tax revolt.

“Prop. 13 is not the untouchable third-rail anymore,” said Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, a Democrat from San Francisco. “It’s more like the bad guy with the mustache who has tied California to the rails with the fiscal train wreck coming.”

Kris Vosburgh, executive director of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, named for the author of Proposition 13, declined to comment on the potential for changes.

The November election gave Democrats 29 of 40 seats in the Senate and 55 of 80 in the Assembly. Even with two Democratic senators giving up their seats to join Congress, that still leaves their party with enough votes to reach two-thirds.

Temporary Loss

In the Assembly, two Democrats are seeking to win those vacated Senate seats in special elections set for April. If both succeed, the party will be one vote short of a supermajority in the lower house. A third Democrat may leave the Assembly to run for the Los Angeles City Council later this year, requiring another special election to fill that seat. That means Democrats, even if they win the races, may not have a chance to summon up the two-thirds majority again until early next year.

“I’m not going to let the little intricacies of the 2013 calendar, where there’s going to be vacancies, affect our thinking and decision-making,” Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, a Democrat from Sacramento, told reporters Dec. 3. “It’s better to do it right rather than to hurry because someone is vacating one house to serve in another house or another body.”

Until 2010, California’s state budget required approval by two-thirds of lawmakers, so Democrats who controlled both chambers had to negotiate for Republican votes. That led to compromises that papered over deficits exceeding $200 billion in the past decade.

Two years ago, voters lowered the budget-passage threshold to a simple majority. Tax and revenue increases, however, still need a supermajority for approval.

Restraint Promised

Brown has promised restraint as he seeks to repair the state’s battered finances and take advantage of higher income-and sales-taxes he persuaded voters to approve in November.

While the governor and lawmakers will need to fill a $1.9 billion deficit through June 2014, that’s down from $13 billion estimated a year ago, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office. The state may have a surplus of $1 billion by fiscal 2015 and $9 billion by 2018, the analyst’s office said.

“The voters have trusted their elected representatives, even trusted me to some extent, and now we’ve got to meet that trust,” Brown told reporters at a statehouse news briefing the morning after the Nov. 6 election. “We’ve got to make sure over the next few years that we pay our bills, we invest in the right programs and that we don’t go on any spending binges.”

Still, Brown too has indicated he wants to begin taking on some of the state’s other pressing problems if finances continue to improve.

Water Project

In July, he unveiled plans for a $14 billion tunnel system to divert abundant Northern California water to thirsty Southern California cities, and the farms that grow half of America’s fresh produce. Redirecting the water has been a long-simmering dispute between northern Californians and those in the more populous south, much of which is semidesert. Voters rejected a similar plan to shift water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta in 1982.

The governor has also championed a $68 billion high-speed rail line to link San Francisco and Los Angeles. Part of the project would be financed by $10 billion in state bonds. Lawmakers in July agreed to begin spending $4.75 billion of that money right away.

Democrats also have said they want to rewrite an $11 billion water-bond proposition voters will decide in 2014. The debt would finance an overhaul of aging system that depends on aqueducts, reservoirs and pipelines, some almost 100 years old.

Dam Funding

When Republicans were needed to help put the bond proposal on the ballot in 2009, they insisted that it include financing for dams. Now Democrats, who oppose new dams, can change the proposal without Republican support.

Allan Hoffenblum, a former Republican consultant and publisher of the California Target Book of political analysis, said some Democrats who won the seats in November that gave them a supermajority are centrists who are less likely to vote for higher taxes, which could temper party ambitions, particularly on fiscal issues.

“It was more of a psychological victory rather than an ideological victory,” he said.

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