California Democrats Got Their Supermajority. Now What?

From The Sacramento Bee (11/28/2016)

By Jeremy B. White

Broadening the path to long-sought deals on affordable housing, transportation infrastructure and climate change, California Democrats have again captured a two-thirds supermajority in both houses of the Legislature.

Enough late votes were counted in Southern California’s 29th Senate District for The Associated Press to project that Democrat Josh Newman defeated Republican Assemblywoman Ling Ling Chang, R-Diamond Bar. The outcome gives Senate Democrats 27 seats, the supermajority threshold in the upper house. Assembly Democrats secured their two-thirds margin earlier this month.

Chang initially led balloting for the 29th, which is anchored largely in Orange County, but she slipped behind as officials tallied provisional and late-arriving mail ballots in the days after the Nov. 8 election. The latest update Monday put Newman 2,136 votes ahead.

With the victory, Democrats reclaimed the theoretical ability to pass taxes, amend political spending laws, move constitutional amendments to the ballot or enact quick-implementing legislation without Republican support. The achievement both underscores the total dominance of Sacramento Democrats and tests the ideological divides in a caucus increasingly split between more liberal and business-friendly members.

In other words: Just because you have a two-thirds margin doesn’t mean all of them will vote together.

Having the margin helps leadership “gain the majorities they need for majority-vote bills when there’s disagreements within the caucus, which is inevitable,” said former Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, who oversaw the last Senate supermajority, but “it’s not a magic wand. You have differences within the caucus. It can be a bit overrated when it comes to passing a lot of two-thirds bills.”

The lessons of four years ago, when Democrats last mustered a supermajority, have tempered expectations.

A two-thirds bill that would have penalized employers who pay little enough that workers qualify for Medi-Cal, widely viewed as a test of the newly forged supermajority, failed on the Assembly floor as centrist Democrats balked. A bill that sought to fund affordable housing with a new fee passed the Senate but later fell victim to interest groups’ infighting. An effort to let voters overturn a ban on affirmative action, which passed the Senate with two-thirds support thanks to a unanimous vote from Democrats, crumbled amid ethnic tensions.

Sustaining cap-and-trade, which relies on auctioning permits for greenhouse gas emissions to industrial polluters, could be a prime test of Democratic priorities this time around.

“If you put 56, 57 dog lovers in a room, they’re not going to all come out saying they love the corgi,” said California League of Conservation Voters lobbyist Jena Price, whose organization backs efforts to reduce carbon emissions.

Gov. Jerry Brown has made extending the expiring cap-and-trade program a hallmark of his administration, and some political analysts have concluded doing so would require a two-thirds vote. Brown noted the difficulty of getting there after lawmakers agreed to expand the climate goals underpinning the cap-and-trade system on a simple majority vote this year.

“When did I decide it would be better to have a 41-vote bill than not have any bill at all? That took a lot of thinking,” he said to laughter. “It’s not what I want. It’s what the Legislature wants.”

Similarly, proposals to ease California’s affordable housing crunch or find money to repair deteriorating roads and bridges would require the higher bar. Transportation blueprints advanced by Brown and Democrats in both houses propose raising gas taxes. An affordable housing proposal championed by former Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, failed in large part because it relied on a $75 real estate transaction fee that demanded two-thirds support.

While Brown has focused on combating climate change, legislators have faced mounting pressure from business and local government groups to secure a transportation funding deal.

“A lot of work has been done. A lot of pieces have been defined,” said California Business Roundtable president Rob Lapsley. “It’s not like there’s a huge amount of work that has to be done. It’s all about sitting down and figuring out which pieces fit together based on who’s in the Legislature.”

Legislative leaders ended weeks of speculation last week deciding against a last-minute session to hammer out a deal with the outgoing legislative class. A letter signed by Brown, Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, D-Paramount, and Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles, committed to “tackling this issue early in the new year.”

Yet even supermajority margins in both houses won’t ensure a compromise passes. Moderate Democrats in the Assembly have pushed back on more expansive climate policies, like a proposal to slash petroleum use by half, by warning of increased energy prices burdening poor constituents. Campaigns in tight districts emphasized a similar point, sending out mailers warning that Democratic challengers supported policies that would drive up prices.

That could make a gas tax increase a tough sell, particularly for vulnerable Democrats who just survived bruising election fights.

“I’m not sure if having a two-thirds even gets the deal done,” said Rony Berdugo, a lobbyist for the League of California Cities, who added his organization prefers a bipartisan deal. “You have to wonder if Democrats are willing to vote on a tax increase with newly elected members, if that’s the best first move for them to make.”

Fiscal conservatives have warned for months about emboldened Democrats trying to push through new taxes. Email blasts from the California Republican Party warned that a Democratic supermajority would lead to “MORE TAXES, MORE GOVERNMENT, LESS FREEDOM.”

“If they feel like the temperature is right, they may look for more broad statewide taxes,” said Small Business Action Committee president Joel Fox, who predicted before the election that sweeping Democratic gains “may embolden some pro-tax-and-spend folks.”