Democrats' power offers rare opportunity in Sacramento
Published: Sunday, November 25, 2012 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, November 23, 2012 at 6:00 p.m.
From the moment it became evident that Democrats had won supermajorities in both houses of the California Legislature, the knee-jerk reporting of that phenomenon has boiled down to a single sentence: Now they can raise taxes.
Let me interrupt that narrative with a news flash: That's not going to happen.
Yes, it's true that any bill to raise taxes in California requires a two-thirds vote of the Legislature. And, yes, it's true that, come Dec. 3, Democrats will have a two-thirds majority in both the Assembly and Senate.
But voters just enacted a substantial tax increase by approving Proposition 30, and the last thing Democratic leaders want to do is to sour that sweet victory by piling more tax increases on top.
And Jerry Brown will still be governor for at least another two years.
As Assembly Speaker John Pérez, D-Los Angeles, noted in his post-election news conference, that means tax increases won't be on the agenda.
“The governor's been very clear that the only way to raise taxes, as long as he is governor, is a direct vote of the people,” Pérez said. “He's never equivocated, and we've never asked him to.” So if Democrats won't use their supermajorities to raise taxes, what might they use them for? The most promising idea is to give voters a chance to do something they have long been clamoring for, which is to fix California's broken initiative system.
With a two-thirds majority vote, the Legislature can place a proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot.
More than that, it can place a constitutional revision on the ballot.
That means it would be possible for lawmakers to fashion a comprehensive proposal to place before voters. That couldn't happen until 2014, which means there is time to approach that thoughtfully.
It also means that no vote would be needed until 2014, which will in all likelihood be the time when Democrats actually have a functional supermajority.
Two senators were elected to Congress this month, which will create vacancies in January, which will trigger special elections that will likely result in Assembly members moving up, creating more vacancies and more special elections.
Add to that the Los Angeles City Council election in June, which will probably result in at least one Assembly member moving on, and it means that at no time in 2013 will a two-thirds majority actually exist.
I spoke with the leaders of both houses over the last few days, and both see some possibilities for initiative reform.
“We have an obligation to consider using this authority and begin thinking about the 2014 ballot,” Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, told me. “We can use 2013 to really explore the idea. There's time to do this right.” Pérez was more circumspect but noted that his interest in initiative reform predates his service in the Assembly. “We will look at some structural issues,” he told me.
Two proposals fell just a handful of votes short last year: one to require more precise disclosure of funding for initiative campaigns and another that would have given the Legislature the ability to review initiatives and suggest changes, which the proponents could then accept or reject.
Those ideas, Pérez noted, were in “the realm of possibility” before Democrats won a supermajority and, therefore, will continue to be possibilities now.
Steinberg has more expansive ideas, such as creating a sunset date for initiatives after which time they could be amended by the Legislature.
Every other state that has direct democracy has such a provision.
Pérez argues that any action to reform the initiative process must include Republicans, lest any resulting proposal be seen as an attempt by Democrats to game the political system.
“Anything we do in the area of structural reforms should be done with an eye toward bringing people across party lines,” he said.
Republicans are understandably skeptical of any change. Because Democrats control all the levers of representative democracy in this state, direct democracy is at this moment in time their only possible check on the majority's power.
But the new math in Sacramento changes the equation for Republicans. Since they no longer have absolute power to just say no to anything that requires a two-thirds vote, they may be more likely to engage in discussion about sensible reforms.
There is now a rare opportunity for the Legislature to take the lead.
“These are not the kinds of issues where interest groups are going to spend the money to put good-government issues on the ballot,” Steinberg said.
In other words, if lawmakers don't do it, it won't get done.
Timm Herdt is a columnist for the Ventura County Star.
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