What Threat Does a Democratic Supermajority in the Legislature Really Pose?

Photo courtesy Franco Folini, flickr

Photo courtesy Franco Folini, flickr

Once again, we’re confronted with the possibility of Democrats grabbing two-thirds control of both houses of the California Legislature. As with the U.S. Senate at the national level, because of higher voter turnout Democrats in California generally do better in presidential election years (2008, 2012) than in the non-presidential years (2010, Tea Party time, and 2014).

The last time this happened, after the 2012 election, Gov. Jerry Brown joked to Democrats in the Legislature, “Remember, hug a Republican.” But then Dems had a problem leveraging their two-thirds supermajorities because several legislators were promoted to the state Senate or the U.S. Congress, leaving vacant seats. Then special elections sometimes elected Republicans, such as state Sen. Andy Vidak of Hanford in July 2013. That election ran up $5 million in campaign costs.

It used to be the two-thirds vote was needed to pass the state budget. That brought up the quasi-undemocratic Gang of Five meetings of the governor and the Democratic and Republican leaders of the Assembly and state Senate. Republicans had real clout and could delay passage of a budget for weeks, even months.

All that ended in 2010, when voters passed Proposition 25, allowing a majority vote for passing the budget. Also helping pass budgets by the June 15 deadline have been large new revenues from the economic recovery and the adept moves of a governor now in his fourth term in office.

Today, the two-thirds supermajority only applies to tax increases, putting measures on the ballot and reversing gubernatorial vetoes.

Tax increases likely won’t be on the agenda because two more probably are going to pass on Nov. 8: Proposition 55, the “extension” of Proposition 30 from 2012. And Proposition 56, the $2 a pack increase in cigarette taxes to further impoverish poor and lower-middle-class smokers. Even Democrats have a limit of how much they can increase taxes. (Don’t they?)

Of course, if the economy tanks next year, once again we’ll have $20 billion budget deficits, and howls for higher taxes to pay for the overspending during the recent years of prosperity. But the deficits usually lag the start of a recession by a year or two, bringing us to 2018, another election year, so the increases would just be put on the ballot.

As to putting measures on the ballot, after the 17 mind-numbing initiatives put before voters this year, does anyone really want any more in 2018? How about that “advisory” initiative, Proposition 59, stuck before voters when the Legislature passed Senate Bill 254? It urges California members of Congress to reverse the Citizens United decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that allowed campaign contributions by corporations.

Here’s some advice to the Legislature: Stop putting initiatives on the ballot! Let the people only do so through the signature process.

As to overturning vetoes by governors, the last time that happened was in 1979. If Dems do regain their two-thirds majorities, what’s likely to happen is a repeat of 2013: fighting over open seats interspersed with increased clout for moderate Democrats.

As Capital Public Radio reported in January 2013, “The most important members of the California Legislature this year might not be the two Democratic leaders – despite the two-thirds supermajorities they hold in each chamber.  And it almost certainly won’t be the Republicans.  They’ve been courted for key votes in recent years but now don’t have the numbers to block any bills on their own. The leverage in this legislative session may well lie with a newly-critical voting bloc: moderate Democrats.”

Republicans’ role? Pretty much what it has been in recent years. They sometimes pair up with Democrats to give bipartisan legitimacy to bills, such as the excellent asset forfeiture bill passed this year. And they put on the eyeshades like state Sen. John Moorlach, R-Costa Mesa, a CPA, and look at the budget numbers.

It’s something. And it’s not likely to change until the return of the Emperor Norton.

Veteran California columnist John Seiler now edits the Seiler Report. His email: [email protected]

This piece was originally published by Fox and Hounds Daily.

Citizens United ballot measure: Who’s for it, who’s against it and what it could really do

As reported by the Los Angeles Times:

California voters will get to weigh in on the flood of money in politics this November through a ballot proposition that supporters say sends a strong message and detractors say does nothing much at all.

Proposition 59 is part of the uphill fight against the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizen’s United decision, which said money spent to influence voters that isn’t funneled through a candidate’s campaign is free speech, and the federal government cannot prohibit corporations and labor unions from spending money that way.

Since the decision, elections have become dramatically more expensive, with hundreds of millions being spent to influence elections at all levels by groups that don’t have to disclose their donors.

The measure asks Californians if they want their members of Congress to work on a constitutional amendment to overturn the landmark Supreme Court decision. …

Click here to read the full article

17 Initiatives Qualify for November Ballot

Voting boothVoters have been warned for a while to be prepared for a seemingly never-ending series of ballot measures, and on Thursday the secretary of state released the final list of what initiatives qualified.

Seventeen total. And while voters will read and learn more as the campaigns unfold between now and Election Day, here is a quick reference guide to get your bearings.

Referendum to Overturn Ban on Single-Use Plastic Bags: This is as it sounds. In 2014, the Legislature passed a ban on single-use plastic bags. So a “yes” vote would uphold the ban. A “no” vote would overturn it.

To uphold the law would ban the use of single-use carryout bags, except for perishable items. It would also impose a fee of at least $.10 per paper bag or thicker plastic bag if the customer didn’t provide a reusable one.

The ban actually died on the Assembly floor in 2014 three days before it passed. What changed? A deal was struck between the United Food and Commercial Workers Union and Safeway creating the $.10 fee, which will be kept by the grocer/retailer.

Plastic Bags, Part II: If the plastic bag ban is upheld by voters, this initiative would divert the $.10 fees for bags to a state fund to pay for environmental programs. This would be in lieu of the money going to the grocers.

Campaign Finance (Poll): This is basically just an elaborate poll. It’s a non-binding measure that allows voters through the ballot process to log their approval or disapproval of campaign finance law in the country.

A similar measure got tied up in court in 2014, as opponents called it a ploy to drive voter turnout. But in January, the state Supreme Court ruled it was allowable, and so here it is.

Specifically at question is the 2010 Citizens United ruling where the U.S. Supreme Court allowed for corporations and labor unions to spend unlimited sums in support or opposition of a political candidate.

Guns and Ammo: This is Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s pet project. This would ban magazines of 11 rounds or more, require background checks for ammunition and require the state to share data in the FBI’s background check system, among other things.

However, a bill passed by the Legislature on Thursday but not signed yet by Gov. Jerry Brown would amend this ballot initiative (yes, it amends something that isn’t yet law) to further limit who can purchase ammunition to both persons whose data matches up with the Automated Firearms System and to those who have a ammunition purchase authorization. There are some exceptions.

Naturally, this sidestep of Newsom to amend his measure ruffled his feathers, dragging him and Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon, the bill’s sponsor, into a public disagreement.

“This last-minute, anti-democratic, poison pill sneak attack makes you wonder if the Pro Tem cares about himself more than he cares about doing the right thing,” said Newsom spokesman Dan Newman, according to The Sacramento Bee. “Is he someone who truly respects the will of the voters and wants to reduce gun violence or is he merely a self-serving cynic completely consumed with petty personal grudges?”

Death Penalty Repeal: This repeals the death penalty as the maximum punishment for murder and replaces it with life without parole, applying retroactively to those already sentenced to death.

This has a provision mandating those who’ve been sentenced to life without parole to work, with 60 percent of their income possibly going towards restitution to victims.

The Opposite of a Death Penalty Repeal: And for those who think the death penalty should stay as the ultimate sentence for murder, this measure would speed up the process by implementing a time limit on the lengthy appeals process, by assigning the superior court for the initial review and by limiting the number of successive petitions.

Like the competing measure, this would impose a work requirement for restitution to victims.

Drug Pricing: This would set pharmaceutical prices for any state agency to be as low as what the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs pays — the VA benefits from federally mandated cost controls.

According to KPCC, the measure would apply to “any program in which the state is the ultimate payer for a drug,” which includes: Medi-Cal fee-for-service plans, CalPERS (provides health benefits to current and retired state employees), prison inmates and people receiving AIDS drugs from the government.

Condoms in Porn: This may as well be called the Condoms In Porn Act, because it would require porn actors to wear condoms during the filming of sexual intercourse.

It also requires that producers provide testing and vaccinations for STDs. And for what it’s worth, producers would also have to post the condom requirements at the job site.

No Blank Checks Initiative: This would require any bond of $2 billion or more for a state project to go before the voters for approval.

As dull as that sounds, it could have a dramatic impact on Gov. Jerry Brown’s legacy, in that it would likely put funding for the bullet train and the twin tunnels water project up to a vote of the people.

School Bond: This would authorize $9 billion in bonds for school construction and modernization, supported by a coalition of school districts and school developers. Pretty self-explanatory.

The measure failed to qualify in 2014, however, amid opposition from Gov. Jerry Brown, who said at the time local school construction was best left up to local control.

Earlier this year, Brown reiterated his opposition, calling the initiative a “blunderbuss effort that promotes sprawl and squanders money that would be far better spent in low-income communities,” according to EdSource.

FYI: Blunderbuss is a “blundering person,” according to Merriam-Webster. It’s also an old fashioned, muzzle-loading gun.

Prop. 30 extension: This is a 12-year extension of Prop. 30, which was a seven-year temporary tax on earnings of more than $250,000 annually to bolster education funding, with the extension coming two years early.

Prop. 30 passed to stave of imminent sharp cuts in education. Now that the economy has recovered, proponents want to keep the money flowing and now hospitals want a cut too.

The extension would allow a quarter-cent sales tax that was part of Prop. 30 to expire, but would add up to $2 billion in funding per year for Medi-Cal, the state’s Medicaid program.

As part of Prop. 30, the program was supposed to receive several layers of accountability, including a state-run audit of the fund that doles out the money to schools that still hasn’t happened. The controller’s office previously told CalWatchdog the audit would likely happen before voters have to decide.

California Legislature Transparency Act: The CLTA is a constitutional amendment requiring the Legislature to make available online the final version of a bill at least 72 hours prior to a vote on either the Assembly or Senate floor. It would also require all open legislative meetings be recorded with the videos posted online within 24 hours and would give permission to individuals to record and share their own videos of open meetings.

Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, D-Lakewood, is currently negotiating with CLTA proponents over changes proposed by the Legislature — but the negotiations are not going well.

Multilingual Education: This would repeal most of Prop. 227, which in 1998 placed heavy restrictions on bilingual educations for English learners in favor of English-immersion education.

Why would voters overturn their prior decision? Education Week framed the debate well. Proponents argue new data shows the value of bilingual education, native English speakers would be allowed access to a bilingual education (if they choose), and because we live in a different world with rapidly changing demographics.

Why would voters keep Prop. 227 on the books? Ron Unz, a former candidate for U.S. Senate and governor who pushed for Prop. 227, argued that an overall improvement over a year-period in standardized test scores shows Prop. 227 worked. And others would likely make a nativist argument: This is America, and residents should learn English.

Medi-Cal Hospital Reimbursement: This one is a little confusing. The federal government contributes to the state’s health care program for low-income patients, called Medi-Cal. In order to get this money, the state has to contribute matching funds.

In 2009, the state passed a law taxing hospitals to help contribute to the state’s portion of the Medi-Cal funding to get the money from the feds. However, the state was diverting some of this money into the general fund.

So, this measure amends the state Constitution requiring these funds go to where they are intended.

It would require a two-thirds vote of the Legislature to amend the fee allocation program only when the changes would “amend or add provisions that further the purposes of the Act.” It would require voter approval to repeal or replace the program with a “similar statute imposing a tax, fee or assessment unless that similar statute is either.”

Sentencing overhaul:  Jerry Brown’s baby. After surviving a legal challenge and rumored sky-high signature collecting fees, this bill made it to the ballot just before the deadline.

Brown’s measure would allow for some nonviolent felons to be paroled early in certain instances, require judges to hold hearings prior to determining whether to try juveniles as an adult, and develop a good behavior, parole-and-sentence credit system for prisoners.

Marijuana Legalization: This would allow individuals, 21 and older, to transport and use up to an ounce of recreational pot. It would allow individuals to grow as many as six plants.

If approved, California would join Alaska, Colorado, Washington and Oregon in allowing recreational pot.

Tobacco Tax: If this passes, smokers would pay a $2-per-pack tax on cigarettes, with a similar increase on other tobacco products and e-cigs containing nicotine. The money will go primarily to healthcare and anti-smoking/tobacco-related health programs.

This piece was originally published by CalWatchdog.com