Californians can be forgiven if they’re slightly nervous about the new two-year legislative session that’s starting. Democrats haven’t wielded this much power in 136 years.
Even a devoted Democratic voter should wince at the overwhelming one-party rule. It’s not exactly what the nation’s founders had in mind and bears watching closely. Exhibit A: One-party Republican control in Washington the last two years.
In Sacramento, the Democrats’ power will be checked only by themselves. There won’t be enough Republicans and moderate Democrats in the Legislature to beat back liberals on most issues even if they wanted to team up.
Any serious legislative squabbling will be solely among Democrats. And there’ll undoubtedly be intraparty fighting over turf and goodies.
“I cannot appoint everyone to [chair] policy committees,” Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Paramount) notes. But he promises to delegate more power to committee heads and encourage them to spread it among their panels’ members — presumably only if they’re Democrats.
The new Legislature will be sworn in Monday. There’ll be happy faces and celebrating with family and friends. Then the lawmakers will knock off until Jan. 7 when they begin meeting full time. That’s when citizens might begin to fret.
Democrats will occupy roughly three-fourths of the seats in both legislative houses. It takes only a two-thirds supermajority to pass tax increases and place constitutional amendments on the ballot. A three-fourths mega-majority is new territory.
Officials are still tabulating votes, but the last count in the Assembly was Democrats 60, Republicans 20. Democrats could still grab a 61st seat. In the Senate, it was Democrats 29, Republicans 11. On election day, Democrats picked up at least five Assembly seats and three in the Senate. And Democrats control every statewide office, including governor.
“The challenge for the party will be to use self-restraint,” says Democratic consultant David Townsend, chief advisor for legislative moderates.
Townsend estimates there are roughly 23 Assembly Democrats and eight senators who are moderates, depending on the issue. In Sacramento, “moderate” essentially means business-friendly.
But Democratic consultant Steve Maviglio contends that new liberal lawmakers “don’t have to be careful” and show restraint. The electorate will be even more leftist in the 2020 presidential election, he says. There’ll be a higher voter turnout, and that usually favors Democrats.
It’s my bet, however, that far-left libs will be kept in check. Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom isn’t about to reverse course 180 degrees from Gov. Jerry Brown and become a lavish spender. And there won’t be much chatter about a sanctuary state, as there was when Los Angeles Democrat Kevin de León was Senate leader.
“Democrats made their point [about illegal immigration] and did well in the elections,” Sen. Bill Dodd (D-Napa) says. “I’d like to see us doing more of the work people want in California.”
Exactly how Democrats use their buffed-up muscle is anyone’s guess. It’s doubtful they know themselves yet.
But here are some guesses:
Newsom will target early childhood education, focusing on what he calls the “readiness gap” — kids not being adequately prepared to start school. The governor-elect says he has a “sense of urgency” for “universal access to preschool.”
That’s also the Assembly speaker’s top priority.
Rendon says he and Newsom are “definitely on the same page. Get the kids early and break the cycle of poverty.” He wants to expand access and also modernize programs.
But how poor will a family need to be to qualify for a state-funded program? That may upset many people.
“The consensus in the Legislature is that it’s not our goal to serve kids whose parents have the means to afford their own” early childhood education, Rendon says.
Newsom also will take a stab at universal healthcare, although not necessarily the single-payer, all-government system many of his supporters adamantly advocate.
“I’m going to push the envelope, lean in on this and see how far we can take it,” Newsom told me in October. “I’ve got over 30 people working on it as we speak.”
This also is a top priority for Senate leader Toni Atkins (D-San Diego). Last year she coauthored a colossally expensive single-payer plan that passed the Senate and was quickly killed in the Assembly by Rendon because it lacked details and funding.
Rendon points out that only roughly 7% of Californians aren’t covered by medical insurance, thanks largely to the federal Affordable Care Act.
“Closing that final gap,” he says, “makes more sense” than trying to create a costly single-payer system.
That gap-closing, however, would mean covering all immigrants who are here illegally with government-financed Medi-Cal. Kids are already covered, but adults aren’t. Covering them could require a bruising legislative fight.
Another pressing problem Democrats have promised to keep working on is homelessness. Newsom says it’s a priority. So does Atkins. California has by far the largest homeless population of any state, with an estimated 23,000 living on L.A. streets.
Voters last month approved $5 billion in bonds for various homeless and low-income housing programs, but that’s just a start.
There’s also a huge deficit of affordable middle-class housing. A big part of the solution is regulatory streamlining. But Democrats haven’t had the stomach for that because unions use the regs to strong-arm labor concessions from developers.
There’s a long list: wildfire prevention, more accessible higher education, a 21st-century tax system….
Newsom will set the agenda and, based on his history, try to make a big splash.