Monday, April 21, 2014

Legislative session marked by Democratic dominance

SACRAMENTO — Democratic legislative leaders say they will avoid talking about higher taxes as the Legislature convenes Monday for the first time since Democrats secured supermajorities in both houses.

Voters last month gave the Democrats two-thirds of the seats in the Assembly and Senate for the first time in 130 years, giving the majority party the power to unilaterally raise taxes, override gubernatorial vetoes, place constitutional amendments before voters and pass emergency legislation that would take effect immediately.

They also will be divvying up the $6 billion in additional tax revenue that is expected to pour in annually for several years after voters approved Gov. Jerry Brown’s tax initiative during the Nov. 6 general election.

The Democratic governor has said one of his key roles will be to control the impulses of the party’s most liberal members so Democrats don’t overplay their hand and lose faith with the public.

The party’s leaders, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg of Sacramento and Assembly Speaker John Perez of Los Angeles, also say they will not revisit the idea of further raising taxes so soon after voters approved Brown’s initiative. Proposition 30 raised the statewide sales tax a quarter cent for four years and increased income taxes on income over $250,000 a year for seven years.

“We don’t want to start off the new session pushing new taxes,” Steinberg told reporters after the November election.

He also added a caveat, saying “There will be opportunities that will be appropriate down the line to look at our tax structure.”

The two-thirds majorities give Democrats the power to approve tax increases without Republican votes. It’s the first time either party has held a supermajority simultaneously in both houses of the Legislature since 1978, when Californians approved Proposition 13. The landmark property tax initiative also increased the number of votes needed to pass tax increases.

Steinberg quickly quashed a proposal by state Sen. Ted Lieu, D-Torrance, who announced he wanted to put a measure on the 2014 ballot that would triple the state’s vehicle license fee to help pay for roads and public transit projects.

But other lawmakers are signaling they will be aggressive about using their party’s new power to pursue revenue, after years of cutbacks that angered many of their staunchest allies, including labor unions. Democratic lawmakers will be under pressure to start reinvesting in social services, education, health care and other programs.

Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, said he will introduce a constitutional amendment Monday that would lower the threshold for voters to approve local school parcel taxes to 55 percent, from the current 65 percent, conforming with the passage rate now needed to approve local school bonds.

Such a change would tinker with Proposition 13 and would require voter approval. Even before it could appear on the ballot, the proposal would need approval from both houses of the Legislature.

“This is not going to raise anyone’s taxes,” Leno said. “This is just allowing voters at the local level to be able to have a greater opportunity to re-invest in education.”

Brown has declined to get into the specifics of what he might veto or approve when it comes to taxes and loopholes. But the day after the November election, he reiterated his 2010 campaign pledge not to raise taxes without voter approval.

He said his relationship with lawmakers in the Legislature has never been better, but cautioned that “with greater power comes greater responsibility.”

“Desires will always outrun the available money,” Brown said. “That’s why we have a governor. If you have a machine that tends to get overheated or speed up, you have a governor that can slow it down.”

Assembly Minority Leader Connie Conway, R-Tulare, said she hopes the governor is able to achieve his goals.

“I really do. I hope he’s able to keep the Dems in check, if you will. It’s a big job for him,” said Conway, who was unanimously re-elected to lead her caucus. “Now that they have this power, a veto override is within their power, too. Maybe the governor has more to worry about than the Republicans. I’m joking, of course.”

She said Republicans will continue to play a watchdog role in the Legislature, as Californians expect them to.

“I still want to approach it in a positive light. Look, Republicans got millions of votes too,” she said.

Republican voter registration has been sliding for nearly two decades in California, falling to 29.4 percent in this year’s election from nearly 35 percent in 2000, as the number of voters who are not affiliated with any party continues to grow. Republicans will have just 11 seats in the 40-member Senate and at least 25 seats in the 80-member Assembly, although a handful of races remain undecided. In Congress, California’s GOP delegation slipped from 19 seats to 15.

Senate Minority Leader Bob Huff, R-Diamond Bar, said he expects Democrats will be eager to spend the additional revenue and that Republicans will have to “shine a light” on those efforts and try to prevent them.

“We have to be vigilant to not go out and ramp up a lot of spending on programs, because this could be gone in a heartbeat,” he said. “My guess is the Democrats will try to overreach and grow government even beyond where it is.”

Nearly 40 freshmen lawmakers are among those being sworn in at the Capitol on Monday, the most in decades.

They and their more senior colleagues will convene for the start of their two-year session against the most positive financial backdrop since the recession began in late 2007. The state’s nonpartisan legislative analyst last month released the best budget outlook in several years, crediting years of spending cuts and passage of the $6 billion in new taxes.

Analyst Mac Taylor indicated that the state could see a budget surplus of more than $1 billion by 2014-15, but he also cautioned that the surplus depends on the Legislature and governor keeping “a tight rein on spending in the next couple of years.” He recommended that any surplus money be set aside in a rainy day fund.

The Associated Press

The Associated Press


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