In California, GOP ponders its relevance

Jim Sanders / The Sacramento Bee /

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — What little muscle they had, California Republican lawmakers used, blocking cigarette, liquor, oil production and other proposed tax hikes duing the past few years.

One GOP senator’s demand as part of a budget deal sparked creation of California’s new top-two primary election system, which allows candidates of the same party to butt heads in November runoffs.

Republicans kept a $6 billion extension of temporary taxes off the ballot last year and nixed plans to award middle-class college scholarships. Their resistance to raising revenue resulted in large cuts to schools, counties and social services in recent years.

Kiss those days goodbye — unless vote-counting trends reverse in two tight Assembly races that provide the GOP with its only hope of stopping a Democratic supermajority in both legislative houses.

Assuming Assembly Speaker John Perez is correct in declaring victory, Republicans no longer can press demands, extract concessions or block whatever Democrats want to do if confronted with a massive budget hole amid a rocky economy.

The GOP won’t be getting offers like that accepted more than a decade ago by then-Assemblyman Anthony Pescetti, R-Rancho Cordova, who helped pass a Democratic-crafted budget after securing nearly $7.5 million for projects in his district.

“If Republicans want any influence now with Democrats, they ought to apply for internships,” quipped Jack Pitney, political science professor at Claremont McKenna College.

Republicans in recent years have held just enough seats to get courted on budget, tax or other key bills requiring approval by a two-thirds margin. Voters began pulling the rug out from under the GOP in 2010, passing an initiative permitting state budgets to be passed by majority vote. They followed that up on Election Day by awarding Democrats an apparent supermajority in the Assembly and Senate.

The blows slap a sagging state GOP that already was low in cash, influence and structure. Only 30 percent of voters are Republicans.

A Democratic supermajority means no GOP votes would be needed to raise taxes, override a governor’s veto, or place constitutional amendments on the ballot. Democrats last wielded such power in 1883.

Gov. Jerry Brown, Perez and Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg say they won’t rush to raise taxes, especially given that voters on Tuesday passed two new tax measures raising about $7 billion annually.

GOP lawmakers and other critics are not convinced, saying Democrats are eager to restore program cuts and owe plenty of political capital to labor unions and other interest groups that spent millions in last Tuesday’s election.

“There’s going to be a tremendous temptation to tax our way to prosperity,” said Bob Huff, Senate GOP leader.

Jon Coupal of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association said he is encouraged by Brown’s vow to practice restraint, “but I think John Perez and Darrell Steinberg will try everything they possibly can to get him to sign off on tax increases.”

Steinberg and Perez talk of pushing issues ranging from reinvesting in schools to providing middle-class college scholarships, promoting job creation, restoring adult dental care for the poor, and perhaps altering the sales tax formula to lower the rate but expand the base to services.

Political analysts say Democrats also are likely to cater to interest groups by pushing for a higher minimum wage, stiffer environmental laws and construction of high-speed rail, and to shy away from big changes to state worker pensions or what the GOP calls overregulation of businesses.

“When you go to a party, you dance with the one who ‘brung ya,’ ” said Larry Gerston, a government professor at San Jose State University, borrowing a famous adage from generations past. “And organized labor was incredibly helpful to Democrats in getting that supermajority.”

It will take months for the dust to settle and a supermajority Legislature to take shape, because two Democratic state senators were elected Tuesday to Congress — Juan Vargas and Gloria Negrete McLeod — requiring special elections to fill their strongly left-leaning seats. Another Democratic senator, Curren Price, is seeking a Los Angeles City Council seat.

At best, Democrats will hold a bare minimum Assembly supermajority, 54 of 80 seats. The Senate margin will exceed two-thirds probably by just one seat, 28-12. If Democrats fail to vote as a bloc, their power on issues requiring a two-thirds margin would wane — and growing numbers of moderate or business-friendly colleagues increase that possibility.

“If Democrats are unified on an issue, they will get what they want,” Pitney said. “The catch is — ‘if Democrats are unified.’ That’s kind of like saying, ‘If the weather is sunny in Seattle.’ ”