Last week, the Legislature gaveled in its new session with Democrats holding a two-thirds “supermajority” in both the Senate and Assembly for the first time in modern history.
This marks an unprecedented opportunity for a powerful and ambitious Democratic caucus – boosted by a largely simpatico Democrat in the governor’s office –to shape a bold progressive agenda without the resistance the GOP has offered in recent years.
Yet, unlike the Republican majority in Washington, D.C., California’s legislative Democrats are downplaying their gains. Instead, they’re playing defense.
Opening session speeches were filled with salvos against the incoming Trump administration. Legislative leaders hired former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to honcho their legal strategy against expected federal assaults on California laws on climate and immigration.
Although laudable, these moves fail to address many of the challenges facing the state. Legislative leaders can learn from what U.S. Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell noted last week. “It’s a big job to actually have responsibility and produce results.”
With their supermajority, Democrats can produce real, lasting change on issues that matter, not just fight against whatever occurs in the nation’s capital. In other words, go big or go home.
In their defense, Democratic leaders note that their supermajority has diverse factions, including a small number of members dependent on corporate interests opposed to a progressive wish list. There’s also a natural inclination among leaders to protect electoral gains by shielding members in swing districts from taking tough votes.
Those are valid reasons to proceed with caution. But they shouldn’t prevent Democrats from moving forward on an agenda with broad political appeal, especially when voters have boosted the state budget with billions of dollars by approving taxes on the rich and on tobacco. This frees Democrats from their long-standing tradition of linking any major initiative with a new revenue source.
Aside from plans to fix roads and build affordable housing, where can Democrats focus to win over the voters they need to maintain their supermajority in 2018?
Make drinking water safe. Flint may have the garnered national headlines. Yet California’s drinking water problems are something you’d expect in a developing nation. There are more than 275,000 people being served by systems that do not have access to safe and reliable drinking water. Even worse, 24,000 children in 68 schools drink unsafe water every day. These are largely Latino and Central Valley families, but the problem exists across the state.
Close the “Mitt Romney” loophole. Under Proposition 13, the basic bargain has been Californians pay low property taxes, but higher income taxes. Out-of-staters such as Romney and many foreign investors buy massive mansions to take advantage of our low property tax, but don’t have California-based income so pay no state income tax. A constitutional amendment to increase property taxes on those owners of “luxury” properties makes sense.
Reform the Public Utilities Commission. Now that the governor has removed two PUC commissioners whose regulatory philosophy was stuck in the 1960s, the state can make real gains in high-tech, particularly in telecommunications. Legislative Republicans have already figured this out and reached out to Silicon Valley. Democrats need to embrace an industry that’s increasingly important to expand our economy to benefit more low- and middle-income Californians.
Improve government efficiency. It was Democrat Al Gore who pushed to “reinvent” government. Democrats shouldn’t be shy about shaking their big government stereotype by streamlining when it makes sense. Start with the Little Hoover Commission, once highly regarded, but now a producer of reports that sit on shelves.
Democratic leaders should be applauded for quickly erecting roadblocks to Trump and GOP congressional efforts to shred the nation’s safety net and erase scores of landmark environmental and labor laws. But Democrats also should use their historic supermajority to get things done here in California, or they risk losing it in 2018.
Steven Maviglio is a Democratic political consultant in Sacramento. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.