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Democrats Gain More Sway In California Legislature

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California State Capitol in Sacramento (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

California State Capitol in Sacramento (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

SACRAMENTO (AP) — Democrats retained control of both legislative chambers and won a major victory in this week’s elections when voters approved Proposition 25, lowering the threshold to pass a state budget from a two-thirds vote to a simple majority.

What that also means, though, is Democrats will have almost no one else to blame for the way the state’s money is spent after Gov-elect Jerry Brown, a Democrat, also replaces Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger in January.

“There’s an old saying, ‘Be careful what you ask for.’ And the people of California have now given Democrats what they asked for: they’ve got total control,” said Senate Minority Leader Bob Dutton, R-Rancho Cucamonga. “There shouldn’t be any more excuses.”

Only one legislative seat changed hands during Tuesday’s vote, even though all 80 Assembly seats and half the 40 Senate seats were up for election.

Democrats picked up Assembly District 5 when their candidate defeated conservative Sacramento lawyer Andy Pugno, who attracted national attention because he represented supporters of the Proposition 8 ban on same-sex unions. The 2008 initiative limiting marriage to a man and a woman was overturned by a federal judge in August.

At the same time voters were increasing the power of the majority party, they may have made Democrats’ job more difficult by passing three other ballot measures.

They lowered the margin for adopting a budget, but rejected increasing fees to pay for state parks, decided to require a two-thirds vote to pass fee increases, and closed loopholes that last year let the Legislature take $5.5 billion from local governments.

Moreover, it will still require a two-thirds vote to raise taxes, though only a simple 50 percent majority to pass a budget. That leaves Democrats to deal with a new budget deficit estimated at $12 billion without some of the one-time measures that have been used to bridge previous budget gaps.

“The voters gave with one hand and took with the other,” said Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento. “They also lessened the tools that we have.”

Steinberg predicted a net benefit for Democrats because they will no longer have to bargain with Republicans for the few final votes needed to pass a budget. He said Democrats may return to voters as early as next spring to consider new taxes and fees.

And he said state government should pass more responsibilities to local governments because they will have more of the money. That, Steinberg said, could be good because it will move services closer to the people who benefit.

Steinberg and Assembly Speaker John Perez, D-Los Angeles, joined Brown in promising to work with Republicans. Steinberg and Perez echoed Dutton in saying state government’s priority must be on creating jobs and improving the state’s economy.

Democrats have controlled the Legislature for years and that won’t change, Dutton said. Republicans will offer their ideas, he said, but Democrats don’t have to listen.

California bucked a national trend when suburban Sacramento voters narrowly rejected Pugno in favor of Democrat Richard Pan, a pediatrician and professor at the University of California, Davis. The seat was held by termed-out Republican Assemblyman Roger Niello of Fair Oaks.

Voters set up a Jan. 4 runoff election to fill the Senate District 1 vacancy left by the death of Sen. Dave Cox, R-Fair Oaks. Republican Assemblyman Ted Gaines and Democrat Ken Cooley were nominated Tuesday from among four candidates in the strongly Republican district.

Voters triggered another special election in the heavily Democratic 28th Senate District by re-electing Sen. Jenny Oropeza, D-Long Beach, despite her death last month.

A third special election will be needed in Senate District 17 after incumbent Sen. George Runner, R-Lancaster, was elected to the statewide Board of Equalization.

Voters in three Assembly districts elected openly gay candidates, increasing the number in the Legislature to seven. The three Democrats are Rich Gordon of Menlo Park in Assembly District 21; Ricardo Lara of Bell Gardens in Assembly District 50; and Toni Atkins of San Diego in Assembly District 76.

That makes California the first state where 5 percent or more of lawmakers are openly gay, said Geoff Kors, executive director of Equality California, the state’s largest gay rights group.

Voters in the 37th Assembly District elected a lawmaker who expects to soon be deployed to Afghanistan. Jeff Gorell, a Republican from Thousand Oaks, is a lieutenant commander in the Navy Reserve. He said before Election Day that he is being sent overseas for 12 months, half his two-year term in the Assembly.

Seth Unger, a spokesman for Assembly Republicans, said other legislators will be able to carry Gorell’s bills.

(© 2010 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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