Would Two-Thirds Democratic Control of the Legislature Even Matter Now?

John Seiler
Former Editorial Writer at the Orange County Register

Once again, we’re confronted with the possibility of Democrats grabbing two-thirds control of both houses of the California Legislature. As with the U.S. Senate at the national level, because of higher voter turnout Democrats in California generally do better in presidential election years (2008, 2012) than in the non-presidential years (2010, Tea Party time, and 2014).

The last time this happened, after the 2012 election, Gov. Jerry Brown joked to Democrats in the Legislature, “Remember, hug a Republican.” But then Dems had problem leveraging their two-thirds supermajorities because several legislators were promoted to the state Senate or the U.S. Congress, leaving vacant seats. Then special elections sometimes elected Republicans, such as state Sen. Andy Vidak of Hanford in July 2013. That election ran up $5 million in campaign costs.

It used to be the two-thirds vote was needed to pass the state budget. That brought up the quasi-undemocratic Gang of Five meetings of the governor and the Democratic and Republican leaders of the Assembly and state Senate. Republicans had real clout and could delay passage of a budget for weeks, even months.

All that ended in 2010, when voters passed Proposition 25, allowing a majority vote for passing the budget. Also helping pass budgets by the June 15 deadline have been large new revenues from the economic recovery and the adept moves of a governor now in his fourth term in office.

Today, the two-thirds supermajority only applies to tax increases, putting measures on the ballot and reversing gubernatorial vetoes.

Tax increases likely won’t be on the agenda because two more probably are going to pass on Nov. 8: Proposition 55, the “extension” of Proposition 30 from 2012. And Proposition 56, the $2 a pack increase in cigarette taxes to further impoverish poor and lower-middle-class smokers. Even Democrats have a limit of how much they can increase taxes. (Don’t they?)

Of course, if the economy tanks next year, once again we’ll have $20 billion budget deficits, and howls for higher taxes to pay for the overspending during the recent years of prosperity. But the deficits usually lag the start of a recession by a year or two, bringing us to 2018, another election year, so the increases would just be put on the ballot.

As to putting measures on the ballot, after the 17 mind-numbing initiatives put before voters this year, does anyone really want any more in 2018? How about that “advisory” initiative, Proposition 59, stuck before voters when the Legislature passed Senate Bill 254? It urges California members of Congress to reverse the Citizens United decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that allowed campaign contributions by corporations.

Here’s some advice to the Legislature: Stop putting initiatives on the ballot! Let the people only do so through the signature process.

As to overturning vetoes by governors, the last time that happened was in 1979. If Dems do regain their two-thirds majorities, what’s likely to happen is a repeat of 2013: fighting over open seats interspersed with increased clout for moderate Democrats.

As Capital Public Radio reported in January 2013, “The most important members of the California Legislature this year might not be the two Democratic leaders – despite the two-thirds supermajorities they hold in each chamber.  And it almost certainly won’t be the Republicans.  They’ve been courted for key votes in recent years but now don’t have the numbers to block any bills on their own. The leverage in this legislative session may well lie with a newly-critical voting bloc: moderate Democrats.”

Republicans’ role? Pretty much what it has been in recent years. They sometimes pair up with Democrats to give bipartisan legitimacy to bills, such as the excellent asset forfeiture bill passed this year. And they put on the eyeshades like state Sen. John Moorlach, R-Costa Mesa, a CPA, and look at the budget numbers.

It’s something. And it’s not likely to change until the return of the Emperor Norton.

Veteran California columnist John Seiler now edits the Seiler Report. His email: [email protected]

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