Attempting to divine the significance of the Democrats capturing a two-thirds majority in the California Legislature, many analysts are pointing to the fact that the same thing happened in 2012, and concluding that it showed the supermajority didn’t really mean much.
They note the ideological diversity within the Democratic caucus made it nearly impossible to muster the required two-thirds vote to pass a tax increase.
Such a conclusion is half-right.
It’s a fact that tax increases will remain nearly impossible to pass without bipartisan consensus because there are conservative Democrats who are as unlikely to vote for them as Republicans. Also likely to among that be group are some not-so-very conservative Democrats who owe their elections to the intercession of business-funded independent expenditure committees (See: “Aguiar-Curry, Cecilia”).
But it is not really a fact that Democrats held a two-thirds majority during the 2013-14 legislative session.
Because of electoral musical chairs that triggered a string of special elections from the moment the new Legislature was sworn in through the end of 2013, coupled with scandals that chased two Democratic senators from office, one can count the time in which Democrats held a two-thirds majority in days and weeks, not years or months.
A review: In the 2012 general election, two Democratic senators in the middle of their terms – Gloria Negrete McLeod and Juan Vargas – were elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. As a result, they resigned their seats immediately after the new Legislature convened. Those vacancies eliminated the two-thirds majority in the Senate.
Each was ultimately replaced through special elections by sitting members of the Assembly – Norma Torres and Ben Hueso. Their departures eliminated to two-thirds majority in the Assembly.
Also in 2013, Senator Curren Price left office after winning a seat on the Los Angeles City Council.
And in the middle of all this – on June 14, 2013 – the FBI raided the Capitol, making public the corruption scandal involving Democratic Senator Ron Calderon, effectively creating another vacancy in the Senate. That was followed in March 2014 with the arrest of Democratic Senator Leland Yee, producing yet another empty desk on the red carpet.
Because of all these vacancies, the Democratic leadership never really had an opportunity to kick the tires on a supermajority that existed only in theory.
The 2017-18 session could be different. At least for the moment, it appears the supermajority will exist in fact, not just theory. There were no mid-term senators elected to higher office this time around, and at least as yet no sitting legislator has declared an interest in running in the coming special election to succeed Attorney General nominee Xavier Becerra in Congress.
In addition, the change in the term-limit law enacted by voters in 2012 has reduced the incentive for Assembly members to be constantly jumping at opportunities to run for higher office.
Unlike in 2012, it appears the members who were sworn in this week will be staying put for a while. And the Democratic supermajority will remain intact long enough to determine for certain whether it has any practical effect on public policy in California.