It became official this week when one state Senate race in Southern California was called: Democrats recaptured two-thirds legislative “supermajorities” in the Nov. 8 election.
Although it underscores California’s status as a political outlier as Republicans take full command of the federal government, it will probably mean little in practical terms.
In fact, it could result in more real clout by business, education reformers and other interests that do battle in the Capitol with liberal groups such as unions, consumer advocates, personal injury attorneys and environmentalists – and more frustration for Gov. Jerry Brown’s legacy war on carbon emissions.
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As Democrats were capturing enough Republican-held seats to reestablish the supermajorities they lost in 2014, the ranks of moderate Democrats were also increasing, thanks to big infusions of campaign cash from business and its new, albeit informal, partners in the education reform movement.
The Assembly’s “mod squad,” as it’s been dubbed, was instrumental during the 2015-16 session in blocking key elements of Brown’s multi-point assault on climate change, which he describes as an “existential threat.” He couldn’t win approval of a tight “low-carbon fuel” mandate or reauthorization of the “cap-and-trade” program of emission allowances.
One member of the loose moderate coalition, San Bernardino’s Cheryl Brown, was taken out by a union-backed campaign that dubbed her “Chevron Cheryl.”
However, the coalition’s ranks were bolstered by several victories in other Democrat vs. Democrat clashes. The education reform activists were particularly pleased by the defeat of Mae Torlakson, wife of state schools chief Tom Torlakson, who had strong backing from their foes in school unions.
Meanwhile, the Senate, which had supported Brown on climate change, may be developing a mod squad of its own with wins by business-backed Democrats such as Bill Dodd of Napa and Steven Bradford of Gardena.
In theory, the supermajorities could be used to impose new taxes or place constitutional amendments on the ballot. But they had almost no effect when Democrats had them during the 2013-14 session, and they may be even less likely to be employed in the 2017-18 session that begins next week.
Mod squad influence is rarely demonstrated in showdown votes on specific bills. Rather, legislation that fails because of their presence is usually placed on the shelf without votes after legislative leaders count noses and come up short.
The 17-year, 90.4 percent record of the California Chamber of Commerce in defeating bills it labels “job killers” is a testament to the clandestine nature of the perennial war between business interests and liberal groups.
Typically, the chamber pins its epithet on a few dozen major bills and only one or two of them make it through and are signed into law, but decisive votes on the vanquished measures are rare.
Thus, mod squad influence will not be apparent from official voting records, only in the final tally of what makes it into law and what doesn’t.