SACRAMENTO -- When Democrats last month achieved broad taxing powers by capturing supermajorities in both chambers of the Legislature, Democratic leaders immediately ruled out new taxes, saying they didn't want to be seen as overreaching just after voters approved Gov. Jerry Brown's $6 billion annual tax hike.
"We will exercise this new power with strength, but also with humility and reason,'' promised Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg.
But it turns out the call for restraint wasn't as magnanimous as it may have seemed.
That's because the Democrats' supermajority status will be short-lived, wiped out for most of 2013 because a spate of expected vacancies and special elections will whittle their ranks to below the two-thirds threshold in the Assembly.
"There will be a very short window that Democrats will have the supermajority," said Eric Bauman, vice chairman of the state Democratic Party. "So I've been cautioning party activists to be patient."
Assembly Democrats will lose their two-thirds majority in late April if, as expected, Assembly members Ben Hueso, D-Chula Vista, and Norma Torres, D-Pomona, win special elections for seats that open when two state senators leave for Congress. And the Assembly will likely lose two other members when one runs for the Los Angeles City Council and another leaps to the Senate after another senator also runs for the council. If that all happens, Assembly Democrats won't be able to
On Monday, Legislators return to Sacramento for a day of swearing-in, but Democrats are holding caucus meetings to hash out differences over how they will use the two-thirds power.
Some Democrats wonder why many of their colleagues are reluctant to use the power they worked so hard to attain.
"Outrageous to say we will do nothing w/supermajority," Sen. Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa, tweeted last week. "Slap in the face to CA voters. CA needs positive leadership."
But most left-leaning interest groups say they now have little choice but to bide their time, particularly since California's stubborn deficit isn't projected to turn into a surplus until the fiscal year that begins July 2014.
"It'll be 2014 until we really have any serious opportunity to go after revenue," said Mike Herald, executive director of the Western Center on Law and Poverty, which advocates for programs that support the poor such as CalWORKS, the state's welfare-to-work system.
"The reality is there's not going to be new revenues next year," he added. "In 2014, the budget picture gets a little better, and we'll certainly have a supermajority fully in effect then."
In the meantime, legislators will likely limit their supermajority powers to passing reforms that require a two-thirds vote, such as changes to the state's political reform act. Senate leader Steinberg said he wants to explore a package of reforms for the state's initiative system.
Other Democrats, including the Senate budget chairman, Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, are hoping to push onto the ballot a constitutional amendment relaxing the two-thirds vote on local school parcel taxes required by Proposition 13, the landmark tax-slashing initiative passed in 1978.
But mostly, 2013 will be a "season of education," when legislators will try to lay the groundwork for significant changes in 2014, said Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley.
"In a way, by not having a two-thirds vote (for most of) the first year, it allows us to have a discussion about things like Proposition 13," Skinner said.
Skinner and other liberals want to build support for a split property tax roll, which would mean that taxes are levied at a higher rate on business and industrial buildings than on homes. "When you have a retailer that's been in town for 30 years paying less in property taxes than a homeowner two blocks away," something must give, she said.
At least one legislator had wanted to exploit the Democrats' newfound unilateral powers immediately. After the elections, Sen. Ted Lieu, D-Torrance, announced plans to seek voter approval of a constitutional amendment restoring the car tax to its levels before Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger slashed it in 2003. He called the proposal -- aimed at raising $4 billion in additional annual revenue for transportation and road projects -- a "test to see what the two-thirds Legislature means."
But within a week -- after facing pressure from within and outside his party, he backtracked, saying that "over the last few weeks California's political landscape has changed."
In his conversation with Steinberg, Lieu told this newspaper, "it was pretty clear that if this proposal became a bill, it was not going to go anywhere."
Democrats now have two-thirds majorities in both chambers of the Legislature -- 29 of 40 seats in the Senate and 54 of 80 in the Assembly. But they will lose their supermajority in the Assembly in late April and most likely won't get it back for the rest of the year. Here's how a revolving door of departures and arrivals will wipe out the supermajority in the Assembly for the better part of 2013: