CALMATTERS: An unprecedented haul of tax dollars generated by a roaring economy. A governor who campaigned on a big-ticket policy agenda of long-time lefty favorites, including universal childcare and state-funded healthcare for all. A Legislature so thoroughly packed with Democrats it gives rise to a new term—”giga-majority.”
Californians could be forgiven for expecting it all to add up to a liberal bonanza, a gusher of policies that the Democratic Party’s base has been clamoring to enact for decades.
But as the new super-blue Legislature sends Gov. Gavin Newsom his first state budget and the Capitol passes the halfway point for making new laws this year, the progressive policies that are advancing amount to less of a torrent than a trickle.
California may look pretty far to the left from a national perspective, but state-wise, lawmakers have already killed or downsized major items on the progressive wish list. They rejected bills to rein in charter school growth, curb oil production, expand data privacy rights and regulate e-cigarettes. They drastically scaled back ambitious agendas to protect renters and limit soda consumption. Though they approved some big progressive goals—giving workers more paid time off to care for a new baby, boosting government funding for healthcare and childcare—those policies have been whittled down from their original versions, making them more incremental than revolutionary.
If voters expected last year’s blue wave to upend policymaking-as-usual in Sacramento, it seems, at least for now, that the old rules still apply. Why? Moderating forces are still at work: swing-district Democrats remain tax-wary, lobbying and campaign money still wield a lot of influence, and virtually no one wants to burn through the state’s $21 billion budget surplus or its nearly $16 billion rainy day fund.
“There was a lot of talk that with a supermajority and a very progressive governor, things were going to go crazy. But when you’re sitting in that spot and looking at what’s going on, you have to hold the line,” said Dana Williamson, a Democratic political consultant who worked closely with former Gov. Jerry Brown.
“It’s also not as easy as everyone thinks to get a two-thirds vote, even when you have a supermajority.”
Democrats now hold about 75 percent of the Legislature’s seats and most bills need only a simple majority to pass. But some measures—notably, any tax increases—must be approved by two-thirds of both houses. Legislative leaders have historically been strategic about using the supermajority, saving it only for high-priority votes. Even then, getting to two-thirds usually involves a lot of negotiation and heartburn because swing-district Democrats are leery of casting votes that their constituents could see as too liberal. read more