House of Origin Onslaught Shows Slightest Glimmer of Hope, If GOP Will Only Seize the Opportunity

Jon Fleischman
Publisher of the FlashReport

I started thinking about this column on Friday, when I was at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library to hear a speech by United States Senator Rand Paul. I was reminded of one of President Reagan’s favorite stories… I can picture my hero — ever the optimist and a horseman through and through – smiling as he tells a tale that concludes with a little optimistic boy who upon encountering a pile of horse manure, excitedly starts digging into the much, laughing and clapping. When asked how he could be so happy when all around was nothing but horse hocky, the little boy cries out, “With all this manure, there’s gotta be a pony in here somewhere!”

This column is not about the onslaught of terrible bills that passed out of the Assembly and Senate during the last week; much will be written about those as they advance through the process. In this column, I’d like to focus upon what I believe was an important moment that occurred, a teachable moment which, if properly understood by the Republican members of the Senate and Assembly, could show the way for Republicans to stand united, achieve limited but important legislative successes despite our party’s “superminority” status, and lay the groundwork for significant electoral victories in the 2014 elections.

Before I begin, though, let me be clear: there is no pony to be found at the end of this story. As with the avalanche of terrible legislation which passed last week from one house to the other, in the weeks ahead the Democrats will pass a budget on a party-line vote that in no way seeks to restore the proper balance of government spending. The situation in Sacramento is dire, and will only get worse as bills go the the Governor for his signature. As a result of these bad bills, more jobs will be lost, our economy will further suffer, and real recovery and economic growth will be delayed even more. But I do believe there is an important lesson — in fact, several important lessons — to be learned from a careful observation of this last week. It is my sincere hope that my friends in Sacramento will heed these lessons, and apply them to future actions. Also, this story finds as its focus the State Assembly.

So what is the first great lesson? Well, like all truly great lessons, it is one we all have known from time immemorial, but must be learned and re-learned time and again. Unity means success for our Republican legislative caucuses.

Assembly Republicans have only 25 of the 79 currently sworn members of the State Assembly. As a result, when Assembly Republicans stand united in either opposing or abstaining on 2/3rds vote bills, that means John Perez has to force every one of his 54 Democrats to cast an “aye” vote. Every single one of his targets — Sharon Quirk-Silva, Rudy Salas, Steve Fox, Ken Cooley, the list goes on — have to go on the record in support of a bad bill. No abstentions, and no meaningless “no” votes. They are forced onto the record for all the voters to see. Or the bill dies. (This scenario will change only slightly when the Democrats regain their 55th vote; then only one target can be spared, and all the others will be forced to “walk the plank” and cast the deciding vote.)

No one knows this better than Speaker Perez himself. So on the very last day before the house of origin deadline, what did John Perez do? He blinked. Why? Because for one brief moment, Assembly Republicans stood firm.

For those less familiar with the legislative calendar, last Friday was the deadline for bills authored in the State Assembly to be passed onto the State Senate, and visa versa.

Some in the press have been reporting that it was the moderate Democrats who were decisive in voting to kill bills on limiting or banning “fracking” (AB 1323 by Holly Mitchell, AB 669 by Roger Stone, and AB 288 by Mark Levine), the creation of for-profit marijuana dispensaries (AB 473), and an attack on the tax-exempt status of non-profit hospitals (AB 975 by Bob Wieckowski), to name some of the very few bills that actually were held in the Assembly. And they’re right; had enough Democrats voted for these bills, they would have passed. But it shouldn’t be forgotten that even when bills can pass on a simple majority vote, let alone the very worst bills such as these, a united Republican caucus sends a clear signal: vote for this bill, and you are voting with the loony left of the Democrat caucus. You are no longer a “moderate,” but stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the most extreme elements of the Democrat party.

As was the case with the infamous AB 32 some years ago, or with every budget prior to the passage of Proposition 25, just one Republican “aye” vote in either house immediately results in a bill being called “bipartisan.” Billions of dollars of tax increases? Bipartisan. Massive expansion of government? Bipartisan. It doesn’t matter: if only one Republican “goes rogue” (and not in a good way), the Democrats and the media will spin the bill as having “bipartisan support,” all in an effort to mainstream the issue and innoculate Democrat members from criticism.

The real story, however, took place on the 2/3rds vote bills that Speaker Perez failed to bring up last week, in particular AB 8. As you know, AB 8 is the $2.3 billion car tax hike upon all Californians in order to pay the cost of industry compliance with Democrat mandates on clean air, tire recycling, and former Governor Schwarzenegger’s infamous “hydrogen highway.” In a classic example of special interests looking to advantage their clients over everyone else (in this case, literally), dozens of industry heavyweights (think the oil and trucking industries for starters, the business trades, and the like) have thrown in with the Democrats to “tax the guy behind the tree.” And that guy is you, me and every little guy in California.

The Senate version of AB 8 — Senate Bill 11, by Fran Pavley (who also was the author of AB 32) — passed easily out of the State Senate. Passage of AB 8 should have been assured, and it shouldn’t have been close. So why didn’t the bill pass?

Back to Lesson #1: Unity means success for Republican caucuses.

It’s no secret that Katcho Achajian has already voted for AB 8 in committee this year; he also voted for last year’s version of the bill. So did Kristen Olsen, who first wrote an op-ed arguing why a vote for a $2.3 billion tax increase did not violate her no tax pledge (the one she signed while in a very competitive GOP primary), and then wrote another op-ed trying to justify why she was no longer taking a no tax pledge. So taken together with a solid bloc of Democrats, AB 8 should have flown through the Assembly. But it didn’t.

Now some will say that AB 8 didn’t need to pass by last Friday, and they’re right. AB 8 doesn’t ever need to pass at all, if SB 11 is voted on instead. And since AB 8 has an urgency clause (the sooner for an extension of taxes that don’t expire for several more years to take effect), it didn’t need to pass last week. But every rational observer I’ve spoken to has confirmed that if John Perez had 54 votes, he would have moved on AB 8, and passed it out of the Assembly.

But he didn’t. The key question is why.

First, there remains one Democrat vacancy in the Assembly. So the Speaker’s margin of 55 falls to 54. Next, another Democrat, Chris Holden, has also been absent due to a death in his family. And one of the juciest targets for 2014, Sharon Quirk-Silva, has already voted against AB 8 in committee, obviously recognizing that voting for a $2.3 billion tax increase on every car driver in California is not the way to get re-elected in an Orange County Assembly seat.

So once the vacancy is filled, and Assemblymember Holden returns, could the Democrats pass AB 8 or SB 11? Yes, but only if every other Assembly Democrat target ignores the actions of Sharon Quirk-Silva and votes “aye”. (That also assumes that Speaker Perez can get every member of the “ultra-greenie left” in his caucus to vote for the bill, something my sources tell me is far from certain. But that’s a topic for another day.)

Or, or course, if Achadjian and Olsen and potential a couple of others swoop in and let the most vulnerable Democrat targets vote “no” on a tax increase while they vote “aye.” But at least last week, Katcho and Kristen weren’t biting (good for them, and thank you both. Keep it up!!).

This observation is reinforced by the fact that several other 2/3rds bills were not taken up for vote. For example, two “shell MOU bills” (legislation that would ratify memoranda of understanding, or contracts, with public employee bargaining units) were brought up for vote by the Democrats even though the actual language of the MOUs has not been negotiated. Assembly Republicans, including Travis Allen, made strong, articulate arguments that the Legislature should not be passing bills to ratify documents that had not yet even been negotiated, let alone put in print. The first two bills passed, but four more were left to linger past the deadline.

I reached out to Travis Allen who told me “It is simply legislative malpractice to rubber stamp contracts that don’t exist and ignore our duty to provide oversight. The people of California elected us to do a job and we should not abrogate this responsibility to the Governor or the Senate.” — Amen to that.

Assembly Republicans actually voted down one bill, AB 1199 by Paul Fong, on a vote of 53-22, with no Republicans voting in favor of the bill. Assembly Republicans showed they were serious on holding the line on 2/3 votes bills, and the result was that the very worst and most important 2/3 bill of all (AB 8) did not come up for vote. (There were some bad bills that were granted “late amendments” which according to former Assembly Republican Leader Scott Baugh, whom I consulted, said that it means those particular bills “still have a heartbeat” — but now I’m getting seriously “into the weeds” on legislative process.)

Will this situation change? No one knows. But now come the second, third and fourth lessons of last week: Currying favor with John Perez gets you nowhere if you are a Republican. It gets you even less if you are a potential target. And even voting with the Democrats doesn’t help.

Needless to say, the situation I just described did not make Speaker Perez a happy camper. So how did the Speaker show his displeasure? By killing a constitutional amendment authored by Jeff Gorell, one of the most “moderate” Republicans in the State Assembly.

Jeff’s measure — Assembly Constitutional Amendment 9 — gets no sympathy from me. As all Flashreport readers know, I was a leading opponent of Proposition 14, the “top 2″ primary measure that Abel Maldonado forced on the ballot as his price for voting for the tax increases of 2009. ACA 9 seeks to “fix” a part of Prop. 14 by making write-in candidates even more impossible than under current law (if I have only Democrats on my ballot, I want a Republican write-in). But the manner in which Speaker Perez chose to kill ACA 9 only confirms Winston Churchill’s belief that while “an appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last,” that decision always rests with the crocodile.

One day earlier (last Thursday), the Assembly had voted to defeat ACA 9 by a vote of 46-19 (constitutional amendments need 2/3 vote in each house to pass). Gorell noticed reconsideration, so ACA 9 might be able to be voted on later in the year (constitutional amendments are not subject to any deadlines). But as a parliamentary issue, the ability to “continue the motion to reconsider until the next legislative day” requires unanimous consent or adoption without objection, otherwise the motion is subject to a roll call vote, and must receive 41 “aye” votes to stay alive. (Once again, thanks to Scott Baugh for walking me through all the procedural stuff.)

With Speaker Perez personally running the Assembly floor, he purposely called upon Gorell to see if he wished to take up ACA 9. Gorell said he wished to “pass,” so all Perez had to do was say “the request to continue the motion to reconsider is continued without objection” and no further action would occur for the day. No fight, no problem.

Instead, the Speaker first purposely called upon Gorell, and then informed him that the request to continue the motion to reconsider required unanimous consent. Then Speaker Perez asked, “Does any Member withhold unanimous consent?” This was a clear set-up, as a Democrat immediately shouted out, “I object.” This meant an immediate roll call vote without any opportunity to debate. The result was obvious: Gorell lost, and ACA 9 was apparently defeated.

Fortunately, Gorell then requested to take up the motion to reconsider (confused yet?). This meant Jeff now got to speak on his ACA, which he did. Of course it didn’t make any difference, as the Democrats ultimately defeated the motion to reconsider ACA 9 by a vote of 25-50 (Jeff needed 41 votes on the motion in order to be able to have an actual vote on his bill), but at least he got in a last word — and Republicans again showed total unity.

So why did John Perez, with 53 members in the house, go to these extreme lengths to “take on” Jeff Gorell, someone who frequently votes with Perez and the Democrats? It surely couldn’t be about the merits of the measure, and as demonstrated just one day earlier, it certainly wasn’t due to any realistic prospects for its passage.

Assemblyman Don Wagner, who was the first to speak out on the floor in defense of Gorell, told me, “I thought the Speaker dealt unnecessarily and uncharacteristically harshly with Assemblyman Gorell and his ACA. I heard that sentiment from several other colleagues, as well.”

My personal view is that after winning time after time in committee and on the Assembly Floor, and having watched the Republicans cower and capitulate whenever he or other Democrats threatened them, John Perez was so angry because 1) he couldn’t pass AB 8, and had been shown up by Darrell Steinberg after the Senate had passed SB 11 so easily); 2) that some of the “moderate Democrats” (and they are moderate only in comparison to the real radicals likeTom Ammiano, Luis Alejo and John Perez himself) had helped to kill Democrat-authored bills; and 3) that some of these same Democrat members had indicated they didn’t want to go up on some other 2/3 vote bills only to have them defeated, because the Republican Caucus was standing strong on 2/3 vote bills, that the Speaker lashed out and killed the only remaining Republican bill on the Assembly Floor. The fact that Jeff Gorell is a Democrat target in 2014, and denying him passage of a “good government measure” was a bonus, as was “spanking” a moderate Republican in order to try to strong-arm him and others back in line all factored into the equation. But clearly John Perez was mad because he lost. And he took that anger out on Jeff Gorell and ACA 9.

The lesson in all of this, however, is that while it may not have been pretty, it was effective. For the Assembly Republicans.

Yesterday I spoke at length with Assembly Republican Leader Connie Conway, who told me that, “Last week a lot of bills passed out of their house of origin that, frankly, are not good for California. But I’m proud of my caucus. Because we stood together as a unified group, a number of bad bills that needed a two-thirds vote did not pass out of the Assembly.”

Kudos to Connie Conway for keeping all the Republicans united. Kudos to Jeff Gorell for keeping his cool while the Speaker was losing his. And a hearty congratulations to all the members of the Republican Caucus for standing strong, especially on AB 8, and for showing that even with 25 members, a united caucus can reap real results.

It would be a true shame if in the days and weeks ahead, Assembly Republicans gave in on AB 8/SB 11, and allowed John Perez to find a way to pass a massive tax increase while protecting his most vulnerable 2014 incumbents. If AB 8/SB 11 ultimately passes with 54 Democrat votes, and all the Democrat targets are forced to vote “aye,” it will still be a real policy setback, but the prospects for major Republican gains in the Assembly — and most importantly, an end to the “superminority” in one house — will be greatly enhanced. Yes, many powerful special interests will be angry that there was no “bipartisan” support for tax increases in the Assembly, and they almost certainly will threaten to withhold campaign contributions from Republicans and instead help the very Democrats who make the prospect of a split roll property tax a reality (of course, some of these folks — like Chevron — to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars — already gave big to keep Republican Andy Vidak out of the State Senate). But does anyone seriously believe that the long-term interests of California’s business community are enhanced by the presence of an entrenched Democrat supermajority? Is passage of AB 8/SB 11 in its current form so important to some in the “third house” that it is worth institutionalizing a Democrat supermajority for years to come?

I spoke with Assemblyman Scott Wilk after Friday’s session. He minced no words on AB 8, “I was pleased that the $2.3 billion car tax in AB 8 did not have the support to have it brought up for a vote. We need to repeal onerous job-killing regulations on California businesses, not simply pass the cost of those regulations along to every car owner in the state.”

Both for the “third house” and for Republicans in the Senate and Assembly, it bears repeating: “An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last.” And that decision always rests with the crocodile.”

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