SACRAMENTO -- As they welcomed in a large class of incoming new legislators Monday, Democratic leaders played down expectations over how they might use their newly won supermajority power, saying they will not seek to raise statewide taxes any time soon.
Thirty nine first-time legislators -- the largest freshman class since 1966 -- were sworn in to the Assembly and the Senate, where Democrats will hold two-thirds majorities in both houses for the first time since 1883.
Looking down the road, legislative leaders see themselves looking at changes in Proposition 13 to make local tax increases easier to accomplish and they want to review tax loopholes.
But Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, made it clear that Democrats will go slowly with the unilateral powers voters handed them -- though he expects many will want quick action.
"There's gonna be a lot of noise, a lot of elbows, a lot of pushing and pulling," Steinberg told reporters after swearing-in ceremonies. "But I don't think we should come hurtling out of the gates talking about taxes. Down the line, as we look at the budget, we can always reassess."
Democrats in the Senate have a 29-11 majority and the Assembly a 55-25 majority, appearing to broaden its majority by one over the weekend when the final tally in a Los Angeles seat switched to the Democrats after initially being counted as Republican.
But newly re-elected Assembly Speaker John Perez made no mention of the supermajority in his acceptance speech, instead referring to the new 12-year term limits that incoming legislators will have, rather than the six-year Assembly terms and eight-year Senate terms that had been in place since 1990.
The new term limits law stabilizes the Assembly and empowers it to pursue long-term planning, Perez said.
That may be needed with such a large freshman class, one of whom is Assemblyman Mark Stone, D-Scotts Valley. Stone said he didn't sense Democrats wanted to use the supermajorities as a cudgel to force through major legislation, and he hoped to work with Republicans.
"I don't get the sense that anybody's interested in the cudgel approach, in doing anything too dramatic," Stone said.
Perez handed out leadership posts Monday, with Assemblyman Luis Alejo, D-Watsonville, heading the Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials Committee, giving him oversight over important agricultural issues, such as pesticide use.
Alejo also introduced several bills Monday related to drinking water, increasing the minimum wage and immigration reform.
Stone will chair the Human Services Committee, which has oversight over the kind of social programs he advocated for as a Santa Cruz County supervisor, including those focused on child welfare.
"It tailors nicely with a number of things that I've worked on," Stone said.
Also sworn in Monday was state Sen. Bill Monning, D-Carmel, who cruised to an easy victory after two terms in the Assembly, where he focused on public health issues. Senate assignments weren't immediately forthcoming.
Legislators will be entering 2013 with a more optimistic view than they've had for years, thanks to the $6 billion in new revenues because voters approved Proposition 30, Gov. Jerry Brown's initiative, which raises taxes on the wealthy and hikes the state sales tax by a quarter cent.
Though the state still faces a $1.9 billion deficit for 2013-14, the Legislative Analyst's Office estimates that California will have a surplus for the foreseeable future thereafter. That, the new supermajorities and the lengthier terms in office has infused Democrats with hope of a new era.
The legislators' early focus will be on the special session on health care to lay the groundwork for the state's implementation of the federal Affordable Care Act, Perez said. Legislators will also begin work on the budget after Brown proposes one in mid-January.
Still, the Democrats' two-thirds majorities will be short-lived. Immediately next year, two senators will leave for Congress, opening up a sequence of moves by other legislators that could leave the Assembly short of the supermajorities for much of 2013.
But Democrats don't necessarily have to assert their new two-thirds powers immediately, said Steinberg. They won't need to pass many changes until next year to place them on the 2014 ballot.
"We have 2013-14 to think about the constitution -- none of it has to be done in 2013," he said.
Legislators will likely tweak Proposition 13 to allow local governments to seek local approval of tax hikes with less than a two-thirds vote than is currently required -- a move that would require statewide voter approval. Steinberg also said he wants to explore extensive reforms to California's initiative system, which would also require a vote by Californians. And he said that Democrats will revise a water bond, which is already on the 2014 ballot, to "well below" $10 billion.
Democrats could find new revenues immediately by closing down some of the dozens of tax loopholes that many say are not as effective as initially touted. Steinberg said he would not consider that a tax increase.
Sentinel reporter Jason Hoppin contributed to this report.