Politics & Government

Dan Walters: Democrats have legislative supermajorities, but will they use them or lose them?

Dan Walters
Dan Walters

Democrats won a 55-seat supermajority in the state Assembly last year, thanks to a couple of surprise wins in what seemed to be safe Republican districts. They kept it by eking out wins in two surprisingly close special elections this year.

Democrats also won a 29-seat supermajority in the state Senate last year, then dropped a seat in a special election.

Despite wide speculation about what supermajorities would bring, they meant virtually nothing this year, due to the unusually heavy spate of resignations and special elections and Democratic leaders’ go-slow attitude on using their theoretical power to raise taxes or pass constitutional amendments by two-thirds votes.

It’s theoretical because actually assembling two-thirds votes for taxes or major constitutional amendments would be difficult.

Both houses have blocs of moderate Democrats who would be reluctant to make such moves, and Gov. Jerry Brown is a barrier on taxes.

The hesitancy has dismayed those on the Democratic left, who envisioned achieving some long-sought goals, such as altering Proposition 13, the state’s property tax limit, or imposing new taxes on oil extraction.

“Use it or lose it” has been the left’s motto, and it appears that 2014 will tell us whether Democrats use their supermajorities and/or lose them during an off-year election with relatively low voter turnout.

The presidential contest drove turnout last year, but history tells us that it will be much lower in 2014, particularly since Democrats may be weighted down by the bollixed-up rollout of health insurance. Polls show a sharp erosion of President Barack Obama’s approval ratings.

The most likely uses of supermajorities next year, if any, would be to place constitutional amendments on the 2014 ballot, such as one to lower the vote requirement for local parcel taxes, a relatively minor change to Proposition 13.

Whether used or not, the supermajorities will definitely be in jeopardy. And whether they survive or become footnotes to history will depend on outcomes in a handful of the 100 legislative districts up for election.

Republicans have their eye on the two seemingly solid Republican Assembly districts in Southern California that Democratic candidates unexpectedly won in 2012, the 36th in the Mojave Desert and the 65th in Orange County.

Democrats, meanwhile, are targeting the Ventura-centered 44th Assembly District because GOP incumbent Jeff Gorrell is running for Congress, and two GOP-held districts in the Inland Empire, the 60th and the 40th.

Retaining Democrats’ Senate supermajority may hinge on ousting GOP incumbents in two San Joaquin Valley districts, Anthony Cannella’s 12th Senate District and Andy Vidak’s 14th, because Republicans are strongly favored to win in two open districts created by the state’s new redistricting commission.