What most historians regard as the golden era of the California Legislature ended with a bang three-plus decades ago when ideological and partisan polarization gripped the Capitol. The passage of Proposition 13 — California’s landmark tax limit — in 1978 was accompanied by election of Republican “Proposition 13 babies” to the Legislature, whom Democrats quickly dubbed “the cavemen.” In reaction, Democratic lawmakers soon tossed out their policy-minded leaders and elevated political warriors who promised — and delivered — partisan gerrymanders of legislative districts to lock in their control of the Capitol.The battle lines were drawn, and for decades partisan gridlock prevailed on the budget and other issues even though the state’s need for effective policymaking increased as its population expanded, its economy evolved and its culture saw massive change.
A new era may have dawned Monday when the Legislature briefly reconvened for its biennial session with two-thirds supermajorities of Democrats in both houses. With a Democratic governor — ironically, the same Jerry Brown who was governor when Proposition 13 passed and who signed that 1982 gerrymander — it adds up to unfettered, one-party contro of the Capitol.
The era of partisan gridlock is over; Democrats can do anything they want on the budget, on taxes and on constitutional amendments, as well as ordinary legislation. They now own it and can no longer complain that Republicans are holding them back from feats of legislative legerdemain. But don’t think for one minute that the end of partisan conflict means the end of conflict, because the underlying tensions in the Capitol remain intact.
The Democratic left is clamoring for the supermajority to move boldly and quickly on raising taxes, especially on corporations, on restoring the cuts to health and social services that were made to close the state budget’s chronic deficits, and on environmental and consumer regulation. But the Legislature’s Democratic leaders appear to be dampening such expectations — knowing that their supermajorities include pro-business moderates from swing districts who are not interested in a rapid shift to the left.
“Voters do not want us to burst out of the gate to raise more taxes,” Darrell Steinberg told senators after being re-elected as the Senate’s top leader. He later told reporters that he’ll entertain big spending increases only when the economy and the newly approved — and temporary — income and sales taxes increases provide the wherewithal, and he wants to devote some of the new money, if it materializes, to debt reduction and reserves.
Thus, Democrat vs. Republican squabbling may be replaced by Democrat vs. Democrat squabbling. It should be interesting to watch.
Dan Walters is a columnist for the Sacramento Bee.