Dan Morain: Dems' supermajority power isn't absolute

dmorain@sacbee.comNovember 11, 2012 

As they make their big plans, Democrats emboldened by their likely supermajority in the Legislature should study Betsy Butler and Michael Allen, two Democratic Assembly members who might not be coming back to Sacramento.

While votes remain to be counted, Butler and Allen face the ignominy of losing in a year when Democrats won big. One reason: They carried legislation that ran afoul of an interest group, which responded with well-aimed campaign attacks that helped elect their Democratic challengers.

"I tend to believe the majority will show some restraint," said Dave Puglia, the executive for the farm group, Western Growers Association, who oversaw the independent campaign against Butler and Allen.

Message sent. Point taken.

For the first time since 1933, one party would hold two-thirds supermajorities in both houses of the California Legislature. By terms of the California Constitution, Democrats can do as they please. Republicans can complain but can block nothing.

Raise taxes? Sure. Override a veto by Gov. Jerry Brown? No problem. Spend wildly? Certainly. The constitution would authorize it all, and it all could happen, but it won't.

"We're not going to try to enact more taxes. Voters just did that," Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg told me. "We have to find that balance between not losing the big opportunity and not overplaying it."

Steinberg will preside over a 40-seat Senate that will have at least 28 Democrats, more than the two-thirds vote needed to approve taxes in the upper house. Some might wish for tax hikes. But then there's reality.

Sen. Lou Correa, D-Santa Ana, has made a point of refusing to vote for anything that smacks of a tax increase, and Sen. Michael Rubio, a Central Valley Democrat, voted against this year's budget.

Rubio in particular has emerged as a moderating voice. Last month, he sent a letter signed by 16 Democrats demanding that the Brown administration pull back on potentially costly environmental regulations related to so-called green chemistry.

In past years, Republicans would have taken the lead on such a missive. But with the GOP marginalized, business interests are relying on moderates to represent their interests. Rubio's letter reflects the reality that in the Senate, moderate Democrats exert more clout on some issues than liberals.

"The path to turning our state around is through the middle," Rubio told me.

In the Assembly, Speaker John A. Pérez has considerable sway over Democratic members. But at most, there will be 54 Democrats in the 80-seat lower house, meaning any one Democrat can veto any major measure Pérez might advocate.

Pérez's leadership position is, no doubt, solid. But not all Democrats will arrive with warm and fuzzy feelings toward him. He tried mightily to block the election of the Democrats who had the temerity to challenge Butler and Allen.

"The campaign has ended, and now we govern," said Marc Levine, the San Rafael city councilman and Democrat who took on Allen. But when I asked what he would do if Pérez were to insist that he cast a vote that runs counter to his values and district, Levine answered: "I wasn't supposed to run for the Assembly, was I."

Steinberg, Pérez and others are contemplating steps that in many ways would be much more far-reaching than raising taxes. In an interview, Steinberg suggested a major revision of the constitution, the tax structure and the initiative system. All would need to go to a vote of the electorate. But with their two-thirds majority, Democrats could place such measures on the ballot, bypassing Republican legislators.

Steinberg also suggested granting local government the power to raise certain taxes by a 55 percent majority rather than the current two-thirds majority, another issue Democrats could place before voters over Republican objections.

There are other steps that lawmakers could take. For example, they could overhaul the public university tuition system, an issue that would directly speak to young voters who turned out in unusually large numbers on Tuesday.

With a supermajority, lawmakers could set about fixing California's antiquated system of water delivery. Rather than ask voters to approve an $11 billion water bond, as is being contemplated, legislators could streamline the project and pay for improvements by levying modest fees on users.

Others Democratic leaders have called on the Legislature to seize the moment by unwinding past decisions. There has been talk, for example, of raising the car tax, though Gov. Gray Davis helped fan his recall by messing with the car tax. Not smart.

California's new top-two primary has introduced uncertainty into politics, as Butler and Allen discovered. Butler's transgression was that she carried legislation that would have subjected farmers to lawsuits by workers suffering from heat exposure. Allen carried a bill to grant overtime pay to farmworkers, among others.

Pérez tried to help both incumbents by directing money their way. Allen raised $2.3 million to Levine's $275,000, and outside groups spent another $464,000 to support Allen's re-election. Similar sums were spent on Butler's race against Santa Monica Mayor Richard Bloom.

A political committee funded primarily by the Western Growers Association spent a combined $524,288, modest by California standards, on seven mailers targeting Butler and seven aimed at Allen.

Voters had no idea that farm votes were at the root of the attacks. One mailer attacked Butler for a vote supposedly to protect miscreant teachers. Allen was attacked for a fine he once received and for votes he and other Democrats took to reduce school spending as part of recent budget deals.

Whether or not Allen and Butler manage to eke out victories, other business groups have taken notice of Western Growers' effort. Other legislators noticed, too. But we'll see whether legislators got the point that they should not get too intoxicated with their supermajorities.

Brown is trying to be Solomon-like, drawing on his biblical studies during his news conference on the day after the election, quoting from the book of Genesis, in which Joseph urges Pharaoh in a time of abundance to store seven years of grain in anticipation of seven years of famine.

The governor needs to be the elder in the room by asserting himself and defining what he wants from the supermajority. If he doesn't, Democratic legislators and their patrons will. Voters have given Democrats a gift. They can squander it. Let's hope they make lasting changes for the betterment of the state.

Modesto Bee is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service