Fueled by a Democratic supermajority and a bumper crop of new faces, California lawmakers launched their new two-year session on Monday, planning to turn their immediate attention to health care and the state budget.
Democrats have a two-thirds majority in the Assembly and Senate for the first time since 1883. That means they have the power to approve new taxes and get constitutional amendments on the ballot without a single Republican vote, but they said Monday they will be cautious not to abuse that new authority.
In his remarks to the new Assembly, Speaker John Perez, D-Los Angeles, noted the body has a "sober, profound responsibility" facing it this coming year.
"We have a special moment as we begin a new legislative year," Perez said.
That supermajority may be short-lived because several seats are expected to open up in 2013 for special elections as members seek other elected offices before their legislative terms expire.
The new class is also marked by the highest number of freshman legislators - 39 - since 1966. But that's not likely to be matched anytime soon, as a new revision to term limits will let incumbents remain in the same office for a longer time.
The previous term-limits law restricted legislators to six years in the Assembly and eight in the Senate. This summer, voters decided to allow lawmakers to be re-elected to either or both houses for up to 12 years.
One of the top issues to be tackled by the Legislature this year is preparing for the complex implementation of federal health care reform in California by 2014, which will require a host of new state laws and regulations. Gov. Jerry Brown is expected to call a special session next month to tackle that issue.
A second big challenge will be once again tackling the state budget, which has faced multibillion-dollar deficits for years. Although with the state's moderate recovery, that budget gap has now been whittled down substantially.
"The good news is we have dealt with the state's structural deficit and now are left with about a $2 billion carryover," said Assemblyman Bob Blumenfield, D-Van Nuys, who is continuing as chairman of the Assembly Budget Committee. "It's a lot of money, but it's nowhere near the $50 billion (shortfall) we faced a couple of years ago."
Democrats are also expected over the next two years to seek changes in Proposition 13 to make local tax increases easier to accomplish, and they promise to look into finding new revenues from closing tax loopholes.
Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, said Democrats will be cautious with the new powers voters handed them, despite expected pressure to move quickly.
"There's going to be a lot of noise, a lot of elbows, a lot of pushing and pulling," Steinberg told reporters after the 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."
One other change that lawmakers are facing this year are lower salaries, after the California Citizens Compensation Commission voted in May to reduce their salaries by 5 percent. But they'll remain the nation's highest- paid legislators, with a base salary of $90,525 a year.
Gov. Brown's salary will drop to about $165,000, down from $174,000. Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom will be making about $124,000, and Attorney General Kamala Harris will be paid less than $144,000.
Some legislators wasted no time Monday in introducing new bills.
Assemblyman Mike Morrell, R-Rancho Cucamonga, submitted a bill Monday that would require anyone who violates parole by failing to register as a sex offender to be sent to state prison instead of a county jail.
Senate Minority Leader Bob Huff, R-Walnut, has yet to develop his own legislative package pending meetings with his staff and submissions from local governments within his district and constituents, spokesman Bill Bird said.
Priorities for Senate Republicans, Bird said, will include seeking pension reform beyond the new law that raises new state workers' retirement ages while also capping benefits.
Another priority will be managing anticipated tax revenues from Proposition 30, the governor's tax increase approved by voters last month.
"We want to make sure that the revenues coming in, that the voters are entrusting us with, is spent wisely," Bird said.
Inland Empire homeowners who are still suffering from the foreclosure crisis could see some relief from a bill proposed by state Sen. Ron Calderon, D-Montebello.
Calderon's Senate Bill 30 would provide a means for financially troubled homeowners who sell their homes via short sale to avoid unwelcome tax bills.
A short sale takes place when a homeowner sells a house for less than the amount owed on the mortgage. Under current law, whatever amount of outstanding debt is not covered by the sales price would be treated as taxable income after Jan. 1.
"You can imagine the hit on a financially distressed homeowner who loses their house," said Rocky Rushing, Calderon's chief of staff.
Calderon's bill would not require homeowners to pay taxes on forgiven mortgage debt after a short sale.
Some Inland Empire community leaders said they hope to see stronger achievements out of the Legislature this year.
Paul Granillo, the CEO of the Inland Empire Economic Partnership, said reforming the California Environmental Quality Act should be among lawmakers' top priorities during the current session.
Specifically, he wants the law to be amended to make it more difficult for Californians to use environmental law as a means to stop construction projects they don't like.
"To put it bluntly, there need to be some checks in place that don't allow just anyone to use a suit to stop a project," Granillo said.
Political analyst Allan Hoffenblum, who tracks the Legislature for his Target Book, suggested the supermajority will not lead to the massive changes that many expect. Democrats, he said, are not always in lockstep with each other.
"This is a very diverse group of Democrats," Hoffenblum said. "It is not as if they were all San Francisco liberals. We even have some who signed a no-tax pledge.
"Also, there are a large number who will be running for vacancies in the state Senate, so they will be careful with what they do. And you also have a lot of Democrats who were elected by narrow margins in very competitive districts and they will want to represent their constituents."
Steve Harmon of the Bay Area News Group and The Associated Press contributed to this report.