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Democrats' new power in Legislature could bring peril too

With the party's supermajority in both houses, pushing quickly for new taxes or overreaching on other issues could lead to a voter backlash.

November 24, 2012|By Michael J. Mishak, Los Angeles Times
  • California Gov. Jerry Brown, and Democratic Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, seen earlier this year.
California Gov. Jerry Brown, and Democratic Senate President Pro Tem Darrell… (Nick Ut / Associated Press…)

SACRAMENTO — Having won a coveted two-thirds supermajority in the Legislature for the first time in more than a century, California Democrats now face the temptations of one-party government — and the perils that come with it.

The party's liberal allies are urging legislative leaders to aggressively exercise their newfound powers, allowing them to sidestep Republicans on tax votes and in placing measures on the statewide ballot.

Among the proposals are new levies on oil companies, overturning the state's ban on same-sex marriage and overhauling Proposition 13, the landmark property-tax initiative.

"This is a huge opportunity," said Joshua Pechthalt, president of the California Federation of Teachers. "We shouldn't be timid about our political agenda."

Political experts, however, said that Democrats could risk a backlash if they overreach, particularly on fiscal matters.

Party leaders and Gov. Jerry Brown persuaded Californians to approve billions of dollars in new taxes on the November ballot — the first statewide tax increase since 2004 — by arguing that the new money would put the state's finances back on track.

"When Santa brings you everything you want for Christmas, to start making your wish list for next year on Dec. 26 looks bad," said Thad Kousser, a UC San Diego political scientist.

State Sen. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance) tested that theory this month when he floated legislation to place a measure on the 2014 ballot to triple the state's vehicle license fee.

The lawmaker said his proposal, which would have raised money for roads and public transit projects, prompted hundreds of negative comments from constituents — and an admonishment from Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento).

Now chastened, Lieu said Democrats should restrain themselves.

"It's clear to me that we need to demonstrate that we can responsibly work with this revenue and not go right back to the voters and ask for more," he said.

Democratic leaders are emphasizing restraint, with an eye toward maintaining their tenuous supermajorities. Voters will weigh in on the party's new dominance as early as next year, when two state senators leave the Legislature for Congress and Assembly members run for their seats.

How party leaders use their new powers could affect the outcome of those special elections — as well as the future prospects of centrist Democrats who eked out unexpected victories in Republican-rich areas of the Central Valley and Southern California.

When Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez (D-Los Angeles) was asked what he intended to do with his caucus' new power, he responded with one word: Nothing.

Steinberg, his Senate counterpart, has been more forthcoming, suggesting lawmakers pursue changes to the state's tax structure and restore money to social services. He said he also wanted to tweak the initiative process by setting expiration dates for ballot measures and requiring proponents to negotiate with the Legislature to refine their proposals.

"We have a responsibility to move the state forward," Steinberg said. "I promise that we will exercise this new power with strength but also with humility and with reason."

Any pursuit of taxes would set up a showdown with Brown, who has pledged not to raise levies without voter approval. Although Democrats now possess the power to override the governor's vetoes, such moves are extremely rare and risk undermining the leader of their own party.

Liberals, however, sense a mandate in the November election results.

They cited record turnout among Latino, Asian and African American voters, who supported Brown's tax-hike measure, Proposition 30, in large numbers, according to exit poll data. Those voters also said by a 2-1 margin that they believed government should be doing more to solve the nation's problems.

Labor leaders were heartened by voter approval of a separate ballot measure that eliminated a controversial corporate tax break and diverted the money to help balance the budget and pay for a new green-energy program.

They said they wanted lawmakers to reevaluate similar business breaks in hopes of freeing up revenue for infrastructure projects.

Activists also suggested they would pursue another longtime goal: a single-payer healthcare system.

"For the very first time in decades we have an opportunity to reshape California," said Rick Jacobs, chairman of the Courage Campaign, a liberal advocacy group that pushed the governor to focus his November tax measure on the wealthy. "Some of us may want to take more risks than others."

michael.mishak@latimes.com

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