Dan Walters

Dan Walters

Dan Walters: Big changes brewing in California's Capitol

Published: Monday, Dec. 31, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 3A
Last Modified: Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2013 - 8:16 pm

The advent of Democratic supermajorities in both houses of the California Legislature has spawned much speculation, especially in the media, about what the majority party might do with its newly minted power.

It's likely to be much less than those on the left hope and those on the right fear, because the margins are still fairly narrow and expanded blocs of Democratic moderates in both houses would likely not go along with anything radical, such as levying heavy new taxes.

Much less attention is being paid to three other structural changes that are more apt to alter the culture of the Capitol in 2013 and beyond: more competitive districts thanks to an independent redistricting commission; a new "top-two" primary system; and a modification of term limits, allowing newly elected legislators to spend as many as 12 years in one house.

Competitive districts and the top-two primary laid the groundwork for the surge in Democratic legislative seats beyond the two-thirds threshold, but they're also responsible for the expansion of the moderate bloc, as backers of the two changes hoped they would.

Counterintuitively, therefore, the centrist and business interests that fostered those structural changes may have gained influence even as the Democrats' ranks expanded.

The state Chamber of Commerce, for example, backed nine winning Democrats for the Assembly, including two who defeated Democratic incumbents supported by the party hierarchy. They are unlikely to support the business- opposed legislation that labor unions, environmental groups, consumer activists and personal injury lawyers routinely sponsor.

The third big change, modifying term limits, is also likely to spawn a different ambience. It would mean, for instance, that the next speaker of the Assembly and the next president pro tem of the Senate could hold those positions for a decade, rather than for just a few years.

With the shorter term limits of the past – six years in the Assembly and eight in the Senate – leaders were only in power for a few years and lacked the career-altering power over their members sometimes needed to forge political deals and get them enacted.

The effect on the Assembly's leadership was especially evident as the house changed speakers every few years, and it meant a shift of internal clout from the Assembly to the Senate, whose leaders were more experienced.

While the much-criticized "imperial speakership" is unlikely to be re-created, future leaders of both houses – and the committee chairs they appoint – will have enough longevity to once again shape public policy.

However, only time will tell whether that stability leads to better governance or a return to the somewhat corrupt, wheeler-dealer atmosphere of the pre-term limit era.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Dan Walters

Dan Walters, political columnist

Dan Walters

Dan Walters has been a journalist for more than a half-century, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. At one point in his career, at age 22, he was the nation's youngest daily newspaper editor.

He joined The Sacramento Union's Capitol bureau in 1975, just as Jerry Brown began his first governorship, and later became the Union's Capitol bureau chief. In 1981, Walters began writing the state's only daily newspaper column devoted to California political, economic and social events and, in 1984, he and the column moved to The Sacramento Bee. He has written more than 7,500 columns about California and its politics and his column now appears in dozens of California newspapers.

Email: dwalters@sacbee.com
Phone: 916-321-1195
Twitter: @WaltersBee

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