Calif. Democrats Eager to Flex Supermajority Muscle

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – California Democrats are back in complete control of the Legislature after voters on Election Day granted the party the holy grail of state politics – a supermajority in both chambers. Equipped with a vice grip on the state Assembly, Senate and governor’s office, the party is capable of making critical policy and budget decisions over the next two years without a pinch of Republican cooperation.

“Here in California, there’s no Republican opposition to the Democrats in control on any level,” said Wesley Hussey, associate professor of government at California State University, Sacramento.

Last week, the Democrats clinched the supermajority threshold for just the second time since 1882, when the Associated Press projected Orange County Democrat Josh Newman over Republican Assemblywoman Ling Ling Chang in the 29th Senate District. The projection gave the Democrats a two-thirds margin in the upper house as well as the Assembly.

The Democrat’s dominance allows them – in theory – to pass taxes, enact emergency legislation, place measures on the ballot without qualifying them and override governor vetoes without a single Republican vote.

While the supermajority arms the Democrats with potent political weapons, experts say it may not be much of a “game-changer” in Sacramento due to recently passed budget laws and visible divisions within the majority party.

Steve Boilard, executive director of the Center for California Studies at Sacramento State, notes that many of the newly elected Democrats won by slim margins and they may be wary initially of tax hikes. If just one Democrat steps out of the party line and votes against a tax increase, they could foil the proposal, Boilard says.

“The Democratic caucus does not vote in lockstep, and the moderate caucus may balk at some of the tax increase proposals and other controversial bills,” Boilard said in an email.

Although California is a decidedly blue state and chose Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump by a 30 percent margin, ideological chasms exist in its 40 Senate voting districts.

The majority of California’s voter base resides in coastal cities and is highly progressive, yet dozens of Democratic representatives come from inland and more conservative agricultural regions.

Over the last few years, a contingent of moderate Democrats elected from the Central Valley and other farming districts have clashed with the party’s progressive wing on labor and climate change issues. The “mod squad’s” influence was displayed in 2015, as it derailed Brown’s ambitious climate change bill that called for a 50 percent cut in gasoline consumption.

The moderate Democrats’ loyalty to the party’s vision will be tested quickly, since Senate Democrats introduced a transportation proposal on Monday that calls for a 12-cent per gallon gasoline tax hike.

The gas tax could run into a mod squad roadblock, Hussey warned.

“I could see a lot of these moderate Democrats very reluctant to vote on a gas tax increase,” Hussey said.

When it comes to budgeting decisions, the supermajority moniker doesn’t carry as much weight as it once did in California. In 2010, voters approved Proposition 25, which removed the two-thirds requirement needed to pass the state budget. As long as Democrats control the statehouse, they don’t need much Republican support on the budget.

“Once Gov. Brown was elected, [Democrats] largely ignored Republicans in the annual budget process,” Hussey said.

Brown reacted to his party’s supermajority cautiously in a meeting with reporters Monday, acknowledging the possibility of newly elected members voting against Democrat proposals.

“The more Democrats there are, the more independent are the most recent members,” Brown said.

But the Democrats could push their weight around the statehouse and short-circuit the normal legislative process by enacting emergency laws.

With a supermajority, the Democrats will have an easier road to pass bills with “urgency” clauses. Urgency bills require a two-thirds majority, but are enacted immediately after the governor signs them and can’t be delayed by referendum attempts.

The ability to quickly enact state laws could come into play if the federal government alters immigration, health care or environmental laws, causes Brown and the Democrats have vowed to fight for.

“I think it will be very hard for the United States to go rogue on climate change,” Brown speculated.

Voters last gave the Democrats a supermajority in 2012, but it lasted less than three months before Democratic senator resigned and was replaced by a Republican. The supermajority is also slim this time around, as Democrats hold 27 of 40 seats in the state Senate and 55 of 80 Assembly seats.

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