Updated 10:55 p.m., Sunday, December 2, 2012
Sacramento –Once lawmakers are sworn in at noon Monday for the newest two-year session of the state Legislature, Democrats will push some old ideas – and use their new supermajority powers – to try to profoundly change California.
Already on the agenda of some lawmakers is the loosening of Proposition 13, long considered the third rail of California politics.
Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, plans to introduce a proposal on Monday to roll back part of Prop. 13 to make it easier for voters to pass property taxes to support their local schools.
Leno hopes his fellow Democrats in the Legislature will agree to place a measure on the statewide ballot that would ask voters to change the state Constitution so that property taxes for education can be approved with a 55 percent vote instead of the current two-thirds requirement.
“Without a doubt, with the additional authority voters have given us, there comes an even greater responsibility,” Leno said. “So, I think this is a modest and appropriate use of our two-thirds authority to be able to let voters make decisions for themselves.”
Other Democrats want to go further. Sen. Noreen Evans of Santa Rosa said Democrats should look at changing how business property taxes are levied under Prop. 13 and look at a tax on oil extraction to fund state parks.
“I think we would be betraying voters by squandering the mandate they gave us,” she said of the supermajority. “We’re essentially talking about the ability to govern.”
Moment of truth
While the powers Democrats won are significant, it’s not clear how they will use them – and whether the proposals from Leno or Evans will get the needed support.
Democrats can now by themselves raise taxes, recommend changes to the state Constitution, override vetoes and change parliamentary rules.
It’s the first time since 1933 that one party has the supermajority in both houses of the state Legislature. Back then, it was the Republicans in charge at the Capitol, and a former Republican mayor of San Francisco, James Rolph Jr., was governor.
But the November general election solidified the Golden State as a blue state – perhaps the Democratic powerhouse of the nation – and showed the political strength of black, Latino and Asian American voters who largely supported Democrats.
Gov. Jerry Brown hasn’t expressed much excitement about the new powers of Democrats and has said he would rein in excessive spending and stick by his 2010 campaign pledge to raise taxes only with voter approval. But there are 83 Democrats in the 120-seat Legislature with many other ideas.
Tax break for students
Assembly Speaker John Pérez, D-Los Angeles, has committed to revising his tax break for middle-class university students in the state, although he hasn’t said how he will pay for the $1 billion price tag. That would take a two-thirds vote as well.
Sen. Ellen Corbett, D-San Leandro, the majority floor leader of the Senate, said she wants to be “respectful” of the supermajority power Democrats now have, but she said Proposition 30 – the first tax-raising measure approved by voters since 2004 – was a message to lawmakers.
“I think the passage of Prop. 30 is a major signal to us … from the voters that voters have decided that they are willing to support education by paying some additional taxes,” Corbett said. Asked if that signal extends to new taxes beyond Prop. 30, such as a tax directed at higher education, she said, “I think so. When I travel around my district, I hear that constantly.”
Corbett said she will help to push Leno’s measure and that funding education, and connecting that to job growth in the state, is her top priority. And she said she is ready to look at other ways to use the supermajority power.
“I think there are plenty of things that we should spend our time on that may have had to be put aside in past years, but I still believe that we need to respect the newfound power,” she said. “Otherwise, voters will take it away from us.”
Republicans say that their diminished power has newly put them in the role of a watchdog, keeping an eye out for any possible shenanigans by Democrats.
Assembly Republican Leader Connie Conway, R-Tulare, noted that despite the losses – Democrats increased from 52 to 54 seats in the Assembly and 25 to 29 in the Senate – millions of people statewide still voted for Republican candidates and Republicans’ priorities of safe communities and good public education remain.
“None of that changes. We’ll just have to be paying close attention and make sure Californians are protected,” Conway said. She said she has a “wait and see” attitude about the Democrats’ new supermajority power.
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