Willie Brown Weighs In on Democratic Supermajority

Willie Brown served in the California Legislature for more than 30 years. (Steve Rhodes/Flickr)

This week’s buzzword in California politics: supermajority.

Democrats in California have a supermajority in the State Senate and are simply waiting for confirmation from two yet-to-be-fully-counted-but-leaning Democrat races in southern California to achieve a supermajority in the Assembly.

In case you missed it, in California politics a “supermajority” is a two-thirds majority. Most people know that any local measures to raise property taxes in California must be approved by a two-thirds vote of the people. That’s thanks to 1978’s Proposition 13. But Prop. 13 also requires a two-thirds vote of the legislature to raise taxes. While Republicans have long been the minority party in Sacramento, they wielded influence by blocking votes needed to pass a tax increase.

To find out what lies ahead in the state legislature, beyond one less road block to tax increases, KQED Forum guest host Scott Shafer spoke with Willie Brown, who served over 30 years in the state Legislature, to describe how a supermajority can change Sacramento.

Here is an edited transcript of Shafer’s interview with Brown on Friday morning’s show:

Scott Shafer: The Democrats have had majorities up in Sacramento for a long time. Other than the ability to raise revenue without any Republican votes, what else changes in terms of the dynamics at the State Capitol?

Willie Brown: Anytime you are at the point where you in one party have total dominance, you are in a position where — if you are smart — you’ll move programs, both those that require appropriations and those that do not. You don’t get this opportunity too often and you have to be just smart enough to do it.

Shafer: Give us some examples. When you say programs that require revenue…

Brown: I said, “may or may not” require revenue.

Shafer: But what about the ones that may?

Brown: Right out of the box, if you knew that Governor Schwarzenegger some years ago unilaterally wiped out the car tax, and that’s what created the problem in the state of California for the disappearing of revenues, maybe you should go back and re-do the car tax immediately. Take the heat for it, but do it.

Shafer: And can you do that without a vote of the people?

Brown: You can do that without a vote of the people. Jerry Brown would have to acquiesce but you could do it.

Shafer: But isn’t that one of the things that got Gray Davis in trouble?

Brown: No, it is not. Because at that time, Mr. Davis did not let the people know what the downsides would be if that source of revenue disappeared. You can’t have sources of revenue disappearing without adverse impacts on the programs. The people are now more sophisticated. The bankruptcies in the local governments that have occurred, the burden that’s being placed upon local government by the return of prisoners from the state system to local governments. There are so many more things now that are clearly evidence [that there is a] need for revenue. No, I don’t think you would have a problem.

Shafer: What about the idea of reaching out to Republicans? Would you advise the governor to do that to reach across the aisle? Or [is it ] just, “They’ve got the power now. Just do what they want to do?”

Brown: I think that most of them up there who read anything about my tenure would find my advice not as easily accepted as would be the case if I was advocating some change in my own attitude.

Shafer: They called you the Ayatollah of Sacramento, didn’t they?

Brown: All of my career, I have been about serving 79 other members, Republicans and Democrats alike. All the rules that I put in for equal access to resources, or proportional representation on committees, or for all kinds of things that would lead to a sharing of responsibilities beyond the campaign activities is what made the House strong and what kept me in charge for half of the time that I spent in the Legislature. The supermajority should not be used to just roll over all the persons there, including the Republicans. The supermajority ought to be about building the strengths of the system to a consensus process that includes the Republicans and the governor should lead that.

Shafer: And where would he lead them? What are some of the things that he can build consensus on — or just decide to do with Democratic votes if that’s the way it turns out? What should the priorities be?

Brown: First, I’d urge him not do anything with just Democratic votes, just because it is a Democratic strength. I would urge him to do the things that need to be done for the state, whatever they are, without reference to whether it’s Democrats or Republicans.

For example, what happens with the university system, the state university system, the community college system? Those are things that do not have Democrat or Republican stamped on them. I would urge them to address issues of the realignment process and go back to considering how do you get that economic development going in local communities, similar to what we did with redevelopment.

Mission Bay, for example, comes right out of the heart of the redevelopment operations. Base closures that occurred where land previously devoted to military purposes has now been given back to local governments in Orange County, Alameda County, San Francisco County and other places. [This] is a golden opportunity without reference to Republicans or Democrats or the governor.

Shafer: One of the things the supermajority could do is put things before the voters. Is there any sort of reform of the initiative system — or anything else — that some feel have made California difficult to govern over the past several decades?

Brown: My attitude about the whole initiative process is that it’s warped; it shouldn’t even be there. If the public wishes to do something about what the legislature has done, then we ought to liberalize the referendum process. But the initiative process ought to be severely restricted so that these political consultants who are now the driving force behind initiating such items won’t be able to do so for their own economic gain.