SACRAMENTO — Democratic lawmakers are starting the new year with a tail wind they haven't had in 130 years — supermajorities in both houses of the Legislature.
They also will be working with a governor of the same political party, a combination that means they can unilaterally increase taxes, pass emergency legislation and put constitutional amendments before voters.
As the legislative session opens Monday, Democrats' lengthy agenda includes state environmental laws, K-12 and higher education funding, and making sure California is prepared for federal health care reforms. No longer can Democrats blame minority Republicans for blocking their priorities.
"We have no more excuses," said state Sen. Michael Rubio of Bakersfield, a Democrat who is leading what promises to be a spirited debate over tweaking the state's pioneering environmental protection laws. "The debate changes because the answers are within our caucus."
Gov. Jerry Brown will set the stage on Thursday when he plans to release his proposed budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1. California is on better financial footing than at any time since the recession began after voters approved Brown's Proposition 30, which will raise an estimated $6 billion a year from temporary tax increases.
The state's nonpartisan budget analyst projects a deficit of less than $2 billion through the next fiscal year and the possibility of surpluses after that.
The relatively rosy outlook after years of multibillion dollar deficits will let Brown call for changing the way the state provides money to schools. He is expected to propose sending more money to poorer districts and to programs for students learning English as a second language, while giving local districts more spending flexibility.
He also is expected to call a special legislative session to address administrative changes required to fully implement the national Affordable Care Act.
Diana Dooley, secretary of the state Health and Human Services Agency, said the special session is needed to ensure California law conforms to the federal health care law, and because of timing. Bills enacted in special sessions take effect in 90 days, while regular session bills cannot take effect until the following year.
Open enrollment on the exchanges is scheduled to start in October.
Dooley said legislation will be needed to set eligibility rules for Medi-Cal, the state's program for the poor, and to make sure California's rules for pre-existing medical conditions comply with federal law.
Despite their supermajorities, some Democratic say they want to move cautiously, fearing a backlash if they can't restrain the most liberal members of their party. Assembly Speaker John Perez, D-Los Angeles, has said he sees little change in direction.
But Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg of Sacramento already has embraced proposals by two Senate Democrats to tinker with Proposition 13, the landmark 1978 property tax initiative, which also increased the number of votes needed to pass local tax increases.
Democratic Sens. Mark Leno of San Francisco and Lois Wolk of Davis want lawmakers to put constitutional amendments before voters that would lower the vote threshold to raise taxes for school districts and some other local governments from the current two-thirds to 55 percent. Meanwhile, Assemblyman Tom Ammiano of San Francisco is proposing a change that would require businesses to pay higher property taxes.