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Politics

Election day gave Democrats total dominance over the California Legislature, but it’s unclear what they can do with it

state senate
Democrats will now control supermajorities in the 40-member state Senate, whose chambers are seen above, and in the 80-member state Assembly.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

History hasn’t been kind to dreams of unbridled political dominance under the state Capitol dome, the kind of power that Democrats now hold after winning a supermajority of seats in both houses of the California Legislature.

Even a decisive trouncing of electoral rivals doesn’t change the fundamental truth that governing is almost always harder than campaigning. And Democrats, united in many issues but opposed on others, face daunting odds in turning the results of Nov. 8 into sweeping change.

For California Democrats, the celebrations began Monday night with the victory of Josh Newman, an advocate for veterans’ programs, in a hotly contested state Senate race east of Los Angeles. Newman defeated Assemblywoman Ling Ling Chang (R-Diamond Bar), giving Democrats 27 seats in the 40-member Senate to complement their 55 seats in the 80-member Assembly.

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The victory marked a return to supermajority power for Democrats, who achieved the same level of dominance in 2012. That feat was the first in almost eight decades for any political party in California.

But it lasted only 81 days, until a Central Valley senator resigned his seat to take a government affairs job in the oil and gas industry and was replaced by a Republican. Even before then, differences had erupted among Democrats on a handful of legislative proposals.

In 2014, Republicans clawed back a handful of legislative seats and left Democrats with strong — but no longer commanding — numbers in both houses.

“I think it’s a cautionary tale, not just for pundits but for the Democrats themselves,” said Steve Boilard, executive director of the Center for California Studies at Cal State Sacramento.

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The experience in 2012 may be why so many Capitol watchers have downplayed the importance of controlling two-thirds of the seats in both houses. Even so, the potential policy and political benefits are substantial.

With a two-thirds vote in each house, taxes can be increased and laws put into effect immediately. It also takes a supermajority of Senate and Assembly members to place an amendment to California’s Constitution on the ballot. 

Democrats have been wary of raising expectations for that kind of power being fully realized by the party’s members who will take the oath of office Monday. For starters, any tax increase would have to pass muster with Gov. Jerry Brown, a governor so reluctant to embrace new tax ideas that he refused to endorse the extension of high-earner income taxes, which voters approved this month in Proposition 55.

Although a supermajority of legislators can override a governor’s veto, no Legislature has been able to do so since a veto by Brown was overridden in 1979. 

Political Road Map: Don’t expect big changes under a legislative supermajority »

The exuberance of liberal lawmakers and interest groups will probably be tempered by the continued strength of a group of business-aligned Democrats who belong to what’s informally known as the “moderate caucus.” A group of largely centrist politicians that has grown in size and prominence since the 2012 creation of new primary rules and longer term limits, these Democrats have pushed back on a number of prominent proposals. Most notable was their success in scaling back a sweeping 2015 climate change proposal that they saw as harmful to middle-class families.

“You have these elitist Democrats that are from rich areas,” said Assemblyman Jim Cooper (D-Elk Grove), co-chairman of the group of business-focused Democrats. “The middle class is still suffering from the recession.”

Members of the so-called mod caucus have often controlled enough votes to slow down or stop bills requiring a simple majority in the Assembly — 41 votes — favored by more liberal lawmakers. The newly expanded roster of Democrats may make them easier to sidestep.

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“The reason I’m happy is we now have 55 Democrats in the Assembly, which you need to be able to get 41 [votes] on a piece of pro-worker, progressive legislation, unfortunately,” said Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego) during a Los Angeles Times post-election symposium.

Perhaps most pressing for lawmakers from both major parties may be the demand for a broad overhaul and expansion of California’s transportation funding. The failure of efforts this year often hinged on plans to raise the state’s gas tax to pay for road and highway repairs — a tax increase that requires a supermajority vote. Republicans in both houses balked, preferring instead to tap revenues collected under the state’s sale of carbon pollution credits to businesses through its cap-and-trade program.

“I’m still open to how we tackle that,” Cooper said of a gas tax increase while insisting any support would depend on the specific use of those new dollars.

In many ways, the divide among Democrats may be a reflection of the severe atrophy in the state’s Republican ranks, now trailing in voter registration by more than 18 percentage points.

“Political issues always tend to become bifurcated among two big groups,” Boilard said. “If the Republican brand is weakening, you then end up having a new moderate Democratic brand.”

In fact, the real thirst for a supermajority in the Legislature was quenched by voters six years ago with the passage of Proposition 25. That law lowered the threshold for passage of the state budget from a two-thirds vote to a simple majority in both legislative houses.

Had that not changed, the Nov. 8 election results would have been far more significant in shaping the work of government and the future of the state.

“No longer is that really big prize just sitting out there,” Boilard said.

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john.myers@latimes.com

Follow @johnmyers on Twitter, sign up for our daily Essential Politics newsletter and listen to the weekly California Politics Podcast

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Political Road Map: Don’t expect big changes if Democrats win a supermajority

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