California Democrats have ample reason to smile. Their party appears to be on the way to gaining a supermajority in both legislative houses — the first time for either party party since 1933, and a tax increase the governor has made the centerpiece of his plan to stave off further budget cuts looks to be on its way to passing as well.
“Everything that the Democrats did is historic,” John Myers told KQED’s Forum with Michael Krasny on Wednesday. “The governor did something that did not happen the last eight times someone [tried] to raise taxes on a statewide ballot. Last night he got a tax increase, almost I would call a general tax increase, though it was supposedly earmarked for schools.
“If these numbers hold, it’s a very fascinating dynamic for Democrats in California and for a Democratic governor here in Sacramento.”
Democrats might think the word “fascinating” an understatement. After all, doesn’t a supermajority mean they can push through tax increases without the help of intransigent Republicans? (Proposition 13 requires tax hikes to be passed by a two-thirds majority of both houses, and Republicans have shown no willingness to play ball.)A Forum listener hinted as much when she wrote, “The supermajority is such an amazingly welcome surprise. Now that it’s here, let’s fix things — get the two-thirds rule changed and get taxes increased in a fair way.”
Another listener asked, “Democratic supermajority — can the onerous parts of Prop. 13 be fixed without a ballot vote?”
The short answer from The California Report’s Scott Shafer: No.
“California, with its extremely powerful, initiative direct-democracy system, [ends up] with unintended consequences sometimes,” he said. “Some would say Prop. 13 had all kinds of unintended consequences, originally it was to help homeowners, especially seniors who were at risk of not being able to pay their property taxes.”
But if the voters pass something, only the voters can revise it, said Shafer. And according to him, Californians hold this concept of direct democracy dear: “There are some things that could be done to tweak it, but not get rid of it. Voters would never go for that.”
But that doesn’t mean that a two-thirds majority is powerless in shaping reform.
“The Legislature could do things,” he said. “For example, have an automatic sunset [for initiatives] after five years, or some kind of an opportunity…to adopt the gist of a ballot measure before it goes to the voters. There are all kinds of things that other states do that moderate the power of the ballot.”
Given the last-minute drama related to $11 million dollar in contributions to the Prop. 30/No on Prop. 32 campaign, said Shafer, reform around campaign finance disclosure could finds its way onto the legislative agenda as well.
Former California Governor Gray Davis told Shafer Wednesday that regarding a supermajority, “If you abuse that authority, you will lose it. So it’s incumbent upon the majority party to act responsibly. If they pass a tax increase every 15 minutes the voters will rebel and they’ll be out of office. Moreover I believe the governor will abide by his promise to the electorate in 2010 [to] not support a tax increase that they have not approved. So I would think if anything comes out of the Legislature that involves raising taxes, the governor will insist that goes to the voters in the form of an an initiative.”