By Jessica Calefati, San Jose Mercury News
SACRAMENTO, Calif. — It took Democrats more than a century to win a supermajority in both houses of the California Legislature, but two corruption cases have cost them their dominating two-thirds majority in the state Senate in little more than a year.
State Senator Ronald Calderon’s decision Sunday to take a paid leave of absence while he fights federal corruption charges will eliminate the supermajority his party won in 2012, threatening the policy priorities of some Democratic lawmakers and Gov. Jerry Brown.
Proposals to create a new rainy-day fund and tax oil companies operating in California would have sailed through the Democrat-controlled Legislature last year, but now, the majority party will be forced to find some Republican support for those and other plans that require a two-thirds vote.
“Suddenly, Republicans have leverage they didn’t have a week ago,” said Bill Whalen, a former aide to Republican Gov. Pete Wilson who is a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. “They’re now in a position to name a price, and the question is, do they have a price in mind?”
The legal troubles of two Southern California Democrats — Calderon and Senator Roderick Wright — have turned the fortunes of Republicans, who lost their relevance in the 2012 election that gave Democrats an iron grip on the Legislature and every statewide office. While Republicans have been forced to the sidelines, Brown has been careful to urge Democrats to use their power judiciously, holding the line on major new spending despite an improving economy and rebounding state revenues.
Senate Republicans are currently considering plans to suspend Calderon and Wright, said Peter DeMarco, a spokesman for Senate Republican Leader Bob Huff. Wright was granted leave last week after his conviction on eight felony counts of perjury and voter fraud.
The legislative impact of the Democrats’ withering supermajority is “the furthest thing from his mind now,” DeMarco said of Huff’s priorities.
On Sunday, Calderon said he sought a leave of absence to focus on his legal defense and to minimize distractions. Last week, a federal grand jury indicted Calderon, a Democrat from Montebello, on charges of bribery, fraud, money laundering and other offenses.
“This is not a resignation since I still have my day in court,” Calderon said in a written statement. “However, due to the nature and complexity of the charges, and the discovery materials that I will have to review, I expect this to be a lengthy period of absence continuing until the end of the session in August.”
California law requires that proposed constitutional amendments, new taxes and fees and ballot propositions initiated by the Legislature win support from two thirds of the members in each house. That threshold does not change when lawmakers volunteer or are forced to vacate their seats.
For the first time since 1883, the Democrats had a supermajority in both houses of the Legislature, but they hardly had to use it to advance those kinds of proposals.
A bill sponsored last year by Democratic Senator Mark DeSaulnier to put a $75 document recording fee on real estate transactions such as refinancing loans needed and won support from the two-thirds of Democratic state Senators. That may be the only time the supermajority was needed to advance legislation in the Senate. Lawmakers can pass the budget with a simple majority, but they now need Republicans for other priorities.
Gov. Jerry Brown in January proposed a constitutional amendment that voters would need to approve to create a new rainy-day fund that limits when the state can withdraw money and links deposits to capital gains revenue. He has called it “essential,” pledging that it will gird the state against future financial meltdowns.
But now the plan won’t be on the ballot in November without some Republican support, and so far, Republicans aren’t biting. They have a rainy-day fund plan of their own that Huff and other Republican leaders have said has even stronger protections against inappropriate withdrawals than the protections included in Brown’s plan. To get either measure on the ballot, the parties will have to compromise.
“Republicans have been completely left out of the debate on this and other issues,” said Larry Gerston, a political science professor at San Jose State University. “Now, they’re hungry for power.”
Proposals for a new oil-extraction tax and ballot propositions to repeal a ban on affirmative action and restrict politicians’ campaign fundraising are also at risk without a supermajority. All of those plans will require support from 27 state senators — the tally required for a two-thirds vote.
With Calderon and Wright gone, only 25 Democratic senators remain, but even within that group, there are divisions, Gerston said.
“Let’s not make the mistake of viewing California Democrats as a monolithic block. We have some urban, some rural, some farmers, some environmentalists, some from Northern California and some from Southern,” Gerston said. Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg “has managed to herd these cats, but now, he’s going to have to work his magic with them and the Republicans.”
Photo: Justin Brockie via Flickr