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Democrats take the reins in a reshaped Legislature

State lawmakers are sworn in Monday, with Democrats holding historic two-thirds supermajorities in both houses. The party's leaders call for investment in education and infrastructure after years of retrenchment.

December 03, 2012|By Michael J. Mishak and Patrick McGreevy, Los Angeles Times
  • William Knight, 11, relaxes at the desk of his uncle, Sen. Steve Knight (R-Palmdale), before the legislative session at the Capitol in Sacramento. Lawmakers were sworn in Monday, with Democrats holding historic two-thirds supermajorities in both houses.
William Knight, 11, relaxes at the desk of his uncle, Sen. Steve Knight (R-Palmdale),… (Rich Pedroncelli, Associated…)

SACRAMENTO — State lawmakers were sworn in to a reshaped Legislature on Monday, with Democrats holding historic two-thirds supermajorities in both houses and the party's leaders calling for investment in public education and infrastructure after years of fiscal retrenchment.

Arguing that California had turned the page on its perpetual budget crisis, leaders ticked off a list of priorities, saying they would use their new powers to help restore spending to popular social services and curb tuition at public colleges. Lawmakers also introduced proposals to relax immigration enforcement, bolster campaign finance disclosures and tweak Proposition 13, which contains the state's landmark property-tax limits.

"I really believe this is the end of one very difficult era in California and the beginning of a new and better era," said state Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento).

The new class is the embodiment of a new election system with independently drawn voting districts and nonpartisan primaries intended to foster moderation and compromise. Nearly half the Assembly is freshmen, the most since 1934. Able to serve longer in one house under revamped term limits, Democratic leaders said the newly elected would bring stability to the Legislature and have time to develop expertise.

Surrounded by friends and family on the Assembly floor, freshmen eagerly responded to the first mentions of their names in the roll call and inserted their keys into their voting machines.

Although the new supermajorities give Democrats the ability to sidestep Republicans on tax votes and in placing measures on the statewide ballot, party leaders reached out to GOP members and urged them to participate in the coming debates.

"Finding the right solutions to the challenges facing California is not the task of one party or one house," said Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez (D-Los Angeles). "It is work that each of us have chosen to take up by putting our name on a ballot."

The note of bipartisanship, however, was fleeting. Assembly Republicans banded together to oppose the first measure of the legislative session, a procedural vote on the rules of the house.

After the swearing-in ceremony, Assembly minority leader Connie Conway (R-Tulare) was still smarting from the November election, in which Democrats picked up a string of surprise victories in GOP-leaning areas. She called on state elections officials to investigate what she called the "tremendous" number of provisional ballots in some of those close contests.

In the Senate, Steinberg urged lawmakers to show restraint in seeking new revenue, especially after Californians passed two tax measures on the ballot last month.

"The voters do not want us to burst out of the gate to approve more taxes," he said.

But Democrats will quickly put their new power to the test in other ways.

State Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) introduced a constitutional amendment that would allow cities and school districts throughout the state to approve new parcel taxes with a 55% vote of the people rather than the two-thirds vote required by Proposition 13. That change can be put on the ballot by the Democratic supermajority.

Lawmakers also proposed ways to spend new revenue. State Sen. Kevin DeLeon (D-Los Angeles) introduced a proposal to use money from Proposition 39, which ended a controversial corporate tax break, to make thousands of public schools more energy-efficient.

And before they had even been sworn in, a group of Democratic lawmakers gathered with religious leaders and immigrant rights advocates to announce the reintroduction of the Trust Act — a proposal to bar local officials from helping federal authorities deport undocumented immigrants unless they have been convicted of, or charged with, a serious or violent felony.

Brown vetoed a similar proposal earlier this year that did not address serious crimes, including child abuse and drug trafficking. Lawmakers said they were committed to making changes and working with the governor on the bill.

Legislators also revived proposals to regulate hydraulic fracturing, a controversial method of oil extraction that involves injecting chemical-laced water and sand deep into the ground to tap crude. Past proposals died in the face of industry opposition.

And they introduced measures that would increase penalties for failing to properly disclose campaign contributions, require greater disclosure of funding sources on mass mailings and media ads and close a loophole that allows some nonprofits to finance campaigns without disclosing their donors.

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