Getty Images/Panoramic Images
Facade of a government building, California State Capitol Building, Sacramento, California, USA
Emboldened by their supermajorities in the Legislature, Democrats have begun to chart an ambitious agenda outlined in the hundreds of bills they introduced before last week's deadline.
From gun control to revenue increases, voting rights to environmental protections, their proposals would make significant changes to California law if they pass and win support from Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown. Outnumbered Republicans said they can only hope to have a say in shaping that agenda as they introduced their own bills, many of which are intended to modify or repeal measures adopted by majority Democrats in recent years.
The two-thirds majorities in the Assembly and Senate won by Democrats during November's election give them the power to unilaterally increase taxes, pass emergency legislation, override gubernatorial vetoes and put constitutional amendments before voters. While their supermajorities are being undermined temporarily as some lawmakers resign to take new offices or jobs outside government, Democratic leaders are confident they ultimately will maintain the two-thirds threshold in both houses.
A Field Poll released last week found that 55 percent of voters think the Democrats' supermajorities are good for California. By Friday's deadline, lawmakers had introduced 2,189 bills for this year's session 1,376 in the Assembly and 813 in the Senate.
That is actually 8 percent less than in 2011, the start of the previous two-year session, when lawmakers introduced 2,381 bills. Democratic leaders have pledged to tread carefully on tax issues and in other areas for fear of alienating voters, yet the majority party is moving aggressively on several fronts. In the Senate, Democrats declared that they wanted to enact even tougher gun and ammunition laws than those signed into law last month in New York, announcing their intentions just 10 days after promising a cautious approach on gun control legislation.
Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg of Sacramento said he was confident Democrats could use their supermajorities to ``once again make California's gun laws the very toughest in the nation.'' He also is supporting proposals that would tinker with Proposition 13, the landmark 1978 voter initiative that rolled back property taxes and strictly limited how much they could rise each year.
It also increased the percentage of votes required to pass local tax hikes. Democratic Sens. Mark Leno of San Francisco and Lois Wolk of Davis are proposing constitutional amendments to lower the vote threshold to raise taxes for school districts and some other local governments from the current two-thirds to 55 percent. Assemblyman Tom Ammiano of San Francisco is seeking a change that would eliminate Proposition 13 provisions that let corporations avoid reassessments after property sales. No changes are proposed for the rules governing residential property tax assessments.
Sen. Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa, has introduced a bill with Leno that would impose a new tax on oil produced in California, which Republicans say would inevitably be passed on to motorists. The measure would raise a projected $2 billion annually to help fund the state's higher education and state parks systems. California is among the nation's top oil-producing states but does not tax oil extraction as other states do, including Texas. In 2011, California wells produced 196.8 million barrels of oil. Democrats also are championing issues that traditionally have been promoted by Republican lawmakers, including changes to environment regulations and promoting job creation.
Steinberg has introduced a bill that would alter the California Environmental Quality Act, among the strictest land-use laws in the nation. He and Brown say the law has been improperly used to delay beneficial projects. Meanwhile, Assembly Speaker Pro Tem Nora Campos, D-San Jose, proposes to let local governments create ``jobs and infrastructure districts.'' They would use tax-increment financing to provide incentives to businesses as a way to hire and train more employees.
The measure fits into what Speaker John Perez, D-Los Angeles, said will be his top priority: putting Californians back to work.
Changes to the ballot will be another topic of debate this year, with Democrats proposing legislation that, if passed, could work to their advantage in the future. Steinberg is promoting limits on the state's initiative process, which critics say has been hijacked by wealthy special interests.
He wants to require initiative proponents to work with legislators to fine-tune their proposals, let initiatives expire after a certain number of years unless they are renewed and require proponents to show grassroots support by collecting small donations and using unpaid signature-gatherers. Republicans fear such changes would benefit labor unions and hurt business interests and wealthy individuals, who have funded some major recent ballot campaigns. Democrats also have introduced at least three bills to extend their reach to young voters. Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, wants to let 15-year-olds pre-register to vote as they sign up for their instructional permits or driver's licenses.
Assemblyman Kevin Mullin, D-San Mateo, is proposing a constitutional amendment permitting 17-year-olds to vote in primaries if they will be 18 by the next general election. And Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, would require polling places on each University of California and California State University campus.
Republicans, meanwhile, are fighting against several Democratic priorities, including a fee imposed on rural property owners to fund wildfire-prevention efforts. Bills by Sen. Anthony Cannella, R-Ceres, and Assemblyman Jeff Gorell, R-Camarillo, would freeze college tuition as long as the governor's tax increases remain in place four years for the state sales tax and seven years for the higher income taxes on those making $250,000 a year or more. Assembly Republicans are focusing on areas where they can agree with majority Democrats.
While they object to most of most of the Democrats' gun control proposals, for example, they are joining in efforts to take guns away from mentally ill people, felons and others who own weapons in violation of existing laws. "I think Californians want and expect us to find areas of importance where we can work together,'' said Assembly Minority Leader Connie Conway, R-Tulare.