LOS ANGELES — Democrats gained a two-thirds majority in the California Senate following Tuesday’s election, bringing them close to the ability to pass tax increases without the need for Republican votes.
However, Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown quickly cautioned that he already has pledged to take any further tax hikes to voters, as he did with the temporary tax increases that voters approved on Tuesday. And Democrat leaders in both the Senate and Assembly downplayed the idea that they would seek to further ratchet up tax rates.
It is the first time since 1965 that Democrats controlled a Senate supermajority, and the only time since California voters passed Proposition 13 in 1978, raising the legislative vote threshold to pass tax increases to two-thirds.
Democrats will control at least 27 seats in the 40-member Senate and are closing in on the two-thirds margin in the Assembly as well.
"It’s time to start anew and to live within our means but at the same time invest in the cornerstone of our future and of our economy, and that’s education,” Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, said in a telephone interview.
He later told reporters that he favors "tax reform” to broaden California’s tax base without further raising tax rates.
"I certainly don’t mean to suggest to my colleagues that the first thing we do is go out and raise more taxes,” Steinberg said.
Tax increases approved by voters on Tuesday can be used to avoid deeper cuts to social programs and restore some health care programs for the poor that had been curtailed, he said.
Yet Democrats will inevitably face increased pressure from public employee unions, teacher unions and other core constituencies now that they are on the verge of gaining total control of the Legislature as well as the governor’s office, said San Jose State University political science professor Larry Gerston.
The California Labor Federation on the left and California Republican Party Chairman Tom Del Beccaro on the right both credited unions for electing Democratic candidates and helping pass Brown’s tax increases.
"It is a big deal and I think there will be expectations from labor, particularly for pension reform. There also will be more expectations to raise revenues,” Gerston said. That may not include outright tax increases, but could involve measures like ending certain business tax exemptions, he said.
The margin of Democrats’ control in the Senate remained uncertain, with one race still too close to call.
Termed-out Democratic Assemblywoman Cathleen Galgiani trailed Republican Assemblyman Bill Berryhill in the Central Valley’s 5th Senate District. But even if she loses, Democrats will have the votes they need to approve tax increases, pass emergency legislation, override governors’ vetoes and change house rules while ignoring Republicans.
Assembly Speaker John Perez, D-Los Angeles, said he was confident that Democrats would gain the 54 seats they need for a supermajority in his chamber as well.
To gain a two-thirds Assembly margin, Democrats needed challenger Sharon Quirk-Silva to oust incumbent Republican Assemblyman Chris Norby in north central Orange County’s 65th Assembly District.
They also needed Democrat Rudy Salas to prevail over Republican Pedro Rios in the Central Valley’s 32nd Assembly District.
Democrats had slim leads in both races, but even if they win Perez repeatedly said he would not use his new supermajority to raise taxes or other revenue.
While Steinberg trumpeted his newfound ability to bypass Republicans he has called "recalcitrant ... ideologues,” Perez pledged to work with the minority party even if he could ignore them.
"We get the best results when we have a true competition for the best ideas,” Perez said, adding later that, "Having a supermajority was never a governing imperative. It’s sitting down and doing the hard work.”
The last time either party gained a supermajority in either chamber was in the 1976 election, when Democrats won a two-thirds margin in the Assembly.
If Democrats win two-thirds majorities in both chambers, it would be the first time since 1933 that one party held simultaneous supermajorities.
But Brown said at a Sacramento news conference that it is his role to make sure legislative members of his own party do not overindulge. He said he will ensure that California does not spend beyond its means.
"The desires will always outrun the available money,” Brown said. "I always like to think with greater power comes greater responsibility.”
He hedged when asked directly if he would veto a tax increase if the Legislature sent him one.
"We’re not into the threat game here,” Brown said.
He said his relationships in the Legislature are "better than they’ve ever been.”
However, Brown benefited from what effectively was a two-thirds majority in both chambers the first time he was governor, from 1974-78, said Tony Quinn, a co-editor of the California Target Book, which analyzes legislative and congressional campaigns.
Assembly Democrats had an outright supermajority, and Senate Democrats were able to consistently count on votes from some moderate Republicans.
Yet Quinn said it wasn’t much of an advantage then because there were few attempts to override Brown’s vetoes or reject his appointees. And this time there may be less pressure to raise taxes because voters just approved Brown’s Proposition 30, raising the statewide sales tax and increasing income taxes on the wealthy.
Associated Press writer Hannah Dreier contributed from Sacramento.