Supermajority gives California Dems a chance to finish what they started

Original Reporting | By Mike Alberti |

Dec. 5, 2012 — Last month, California voters gave Democrats a two-thirds majority in both houses of the state legislature for the first time in 70 years.  That enhanced margin theoretically gave Democrats the power to do a variety of things that they could not achieve in the past.

When the Los Angeles Times asked Assembly Speaker John A Peréz what he intended to do with the Democrats’ new supermajority, he said, simply, “Nothing.”

In 1978, for example, voters approved Proposition 13, a provision of which prohibited the legislature from raising taxes without a two-thirds majority (“supermajority”) vote in both chambers. But being able to overcome the anti-tax barriers of Proposition 13 is only one of the advantages of a supermajority under California law. That margin also enables the dominant party to change legislative rules, override a Governor’s vetoes, place initiatives and constitutional amendments on the ballot, and make changes to some existing laws that were enacted by past ballot initiatives.

Rather than considering their election a mandate from the voters to tackle some of the state’s many issues, however, the tone set by California Democrats has been decidedly cautious. Governor Jerry Brown has promised to “cut down” the desires to restore some of the cuts from the last three years and to take any tax increase proposal directly to the voters. In the state legislature, when the Los Angeles Times asked Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez what he intended to do with the Democrats’ new supermajority, he said, simply, “Nothing.”

The most common explanation for this hesitancy has been that the state government needs to prove to California’s citizens that they can thoughtfully and responsibly handle the power given to them. But what are the actual consequences of inaction?  And is inaction the thoughtful and responsible course?

As a Remapping Debate analysis shows, there were at least five legislative proposals in the last two years that, although earning broad support, failed because they required a supermajority vote and didn’t get one. In some cases, the bills came up only one or two votes short of the supermajority margin.

In collecting proposals, we limited ourselves to bills that have been introduced in the state legislature since Brown took office in 2011, required a supermajority vote to pass, and either narrowly failed to reach that bar in a floor vote in one or both houses, or failed to make it out of committee because it was clear that Republicans would not allow the bill to pass. We did not include bills that passed but were vetoed by the Governor, or proposed bills that fell far short of the supermajority vote necessary for passage.


Housing Opportunity and Market Stabilization (HOMeS) Trust Fund Act

Introduced last February by State Senator Mark DeSaulnier and State Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, this proposed bill would have created a dedicated fund for the development of affordable housing in California and for the accomplishment of some other housing-related goals, such as foreclosure mitigation.

Ray Pearl of the California Housing Consortium explained that the combination of budget cuts and the foreclosure crisis has left the state in a place where “the need for affordable housing is greater than ever, but with no way to pay for it.”

Advocates have been fighting for a stable, dedicated funding stream for affordable housing for years, but as Ray Pearl, the executive director of the California Housing Consortium, explained in an interview, the need for such a mechanism has increased dramatically in recent years, as traditional funding sources have dried up. The primary source of funds — about $1 billion a year — came through the state’s independent economic development agencies, but those funds disappeared when lawmakers abolished those agencies in 2011. Additionally, while California voters have approved two ballot initiatives that raised a total of about $5 billion for affordable housing through bond sales in the last 10 years, those funds have also run out.

“That leaves us in a place where, because of the economy and the foreclosure crisis, the need for affordable housing is greater than ever, but with no way to pay for it,” Pearl said.

The HOMeS Trust Fund Act would have provided an estimated $525 million a year for affordable housing by imposing a $75 dollar fee on the recordation of real estate documents, excluding home sales. Dedicated trust funds for affordable housing are used by 35 states, and a document recordation fee is the second most common funding measure after a real-estate transfer tax.

The fee would still have been considered a tax under the definitions of Proposition 13, however, therefore requiring a supermajority for passage. When it came up for a vote in the State Senate last May, it did not gain any Republican votes and fell a single vote shy of the two-thirds necessary for passage.

Pearl said that he is confident that a new bill will be introduced in the next session, though it unclear who the sponsor will be or whether it will be able to attract all the Democratic votes it will need in both houses.


California DISCLOSE Act

Modeled on similar legislation that has been proposed at the federal level, the California DISCLOSE Act would have created some of the strictest transparency requirements for election spending in any state in the country. The proposed bill, introduced in January by Assembly Member (now Congress Member-elect) Julia Brownley, would have made several significant changes to the state’s disclosure laws regarding campaign advertisements. In particular, the bill would have required that any television, radio, or print advertisements that support or endorse a candidate, other than those for which the candidate does not explicitly take responsibility, include a list of the organizations of individuals who made the top three largest total donations to the advertisement. The bill would also have required that any political action committee that pays for an advertisement set up a website with a list of its five largest funders.

The bill would have reformed a 1974 disclosure law that was passed as a ballot initiative and included a provision requiring a supermajority vote for it to be amended.

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