By Jim Sanders
Published: Saturday, Jan. 28, 2012 – 12:00 am | Page 3A

A California Supreme Court ruling Friday significantly raised Democratic Party prospects of gaining the supermajority needed in the state Senate to pass tax or fee increases.

The high court decided that Senate maps drawn recently by a 14-member citizens commission will be used for this year’s legislative elections, even if a pending referendum qualifies for the ballot.

The decision brought certainty for dozens of prospective Senate candidates awaiting final adoption of the maps as they begin their campaigns. And it offered the commission at least temporary validation that it performed its job as the voters intended.

Political analysts of both parties agree that the commission-drawn lines give Democrats a good chance of capturing the two seats necessary to give them a two-thirds supermajority in the Senate by December.

California Republican Party Chairman Tom Del Beccaro told The Bee this week that retention of the new lines would make it “enormously difficult” to keep Democrats from a Senate supermajority.

“The political winds have been blowing against them in recent years, and unfavorable district lines make their position even worse,” said Jack Pitney, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College.

Tax increases and passage of some other items would require a two-thirds vote in the Assembly, too, and Democrats are not as confident about achieving that this year. Still, a supermajority in the upper house would significantly increase Democrats’ leverage in the Legislature.

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, said he is not “taking a victory lap” over Friday’s ruling but that California would be better off if budget deficits could be eased by revenue increases as well as cost cutting.

“We’re going to strive very hard to gain the support of the people of the state of California – and when we do, we expect them to hold us accountable,” Steinberg said.

Republican Sens. Sam Blakeslee of San Luis Obispo and Tony Strickland of Moorpark are targeted as the most vulnerable GOP incumbents under the new maps. Blakeslee is not expected to seek re-election and Strickland is eyeing a congressional seat.

Twenty of the Senate’s 40 seats are up for grabs this year.

The Supreme Court’s 73-page ruling concluded that maps drawn by the citizens commission were the most appropriate and least disruptive for use in this year’s legislative elections.

The issue came before the high court after a Republican-backed group, Fairness and Accountability in Redistricting, filed more than 711,000 signatures with county elections offices in a referendum to overturn the new Senate maps.

County elections officials face a Feb. 24 deadline for certifying FAIR’s referendum signatures.

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