California Legislature ends session without new taxes or spending spree
By Mike Rosenberg and Josh Richman
Staff writers
Posted: 09/16/2013 10:32:49 AM PDT
Updated: 09/16/2013 10:34:17 AM PDT

SACRAMENTO -- After Democrats captured two-thirds majorities in both houses of the Legislature last November -- the first time it had happened in 130 years -- some Californians predicted that donkeys would run wild through the Capitol and push the state much further to the left.
But the political reality proved much different. And by the time Gov. Jerry Brown is done wielding his veto pen next month, what actually makes it into the law books might be even more middle-of-the-road.
Contrary to the bravado expressed by some liberal Democrats early in the year, the Legislature did not pass any new taxes or make it easier for voters to enact tax hikes -- and they abandoned plans to water down California's landmark Proposition 13, which caps both residential and commercial property taxes.

To be sure, by the time their session ended late Thursday night, legislators had approved small spending increases to a few social services programs, passed a new round of gun-control measures, boosted the minimum wage by 25 percent and approved giving illegal immigrants driver's licenses. But the lawmakers on the far left who had proposed the most aggressive agenda were for the most part silenced.
"The governor and legislative leaders seemed to have been able to rein them in -- maybe not on everything, but on most things," said Dan Schnur, a former GOP operative who now heads USC's Unruh Institute of Politics.
Other political experts say the moderation was mostly the work of Brown, who has arguably become the most popular figure in Sacramento by pushing a centrist agenda. As veteran political analyst Sherry Bebitch Jeffe put it: The Democratic governor provided the "adult supervision" of rank-and-file lawmakers in his party.
Brown also generally worked well with the leaders of the Legislature's two chambers: Assembly Speaker John Perez, D-Los Angeles, and Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento.
The governor now has until Oct. 13 to sign or veto bills. Though Brown is often hard to predict, it's possible that he will reward many Democratic lawmakers for cooperating with his moderate agenda.
"He's probably vetoing less," said San Jose State political science professor Larry Gerston, "because he and the Legislature are on the same footing before the bill gets out."
Among Brown's hardest political decisions will be whether to kill some of the most far-reaching gun laws -- especially SB 374, which would outlaw all semi-automatic rifles with detachable magazines, and AB 711, which would ban lead ammunition in hunting.
Another tough call will be AB 4, which would limit county jail officials' cooperation with the federal Secure Communities deportation program. When he was attorney general, Brown, who vetoed a similar bill last year, had signed the state's pact for Secure Communities. And he spoke of it proudly during his 2010 campaign for governor.
Brown will also have to decide whether to side with teachers unions or with school boards and administrators on AB 375, a teacher-discipline bill.
The theme of financial and ideological restraint was set early on, in the weeks leading up to the start of the session in January. That's when Sen. Ted Lieu, D-Torrance, proposed a ballot initiative to restore the car tax to its 2003 level, before it was famously slashed by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Lieu called it a "test to see what the two-thirds (Democrat-controlled) Legislature means." But within weeks, fellow Democrats convinced Lieu to drop the proposal.
Then in June, during the normally contentious budget talks, the Legislature scrapped its plan to significantly increase spending on social services and instead agreed to Brown's stingier fiscal plan.
Initial proposals to allow the Legislature to place tax hikes on the ballot with a simple majority, instead of the current two-thirds threshold, or to allow local schools to pass parcel taxes with 55 percent of the vote instead of two-thirds, never got anywhere. Neither did some Democrats' plans for a "split" property-tax roll that would allow commercial property taxes to be raised every couple of years based on reassessments.
"For now they were prudent to hold their fire on tax increases," said Jack Pitney, a political-science professor at Claremont McKenna College, noting that the changes would most likely be politically unpopular, especially now that the budget is balanced. "But if in a couple years we're facing deficits, I think the Legislature will look at some tax measures rather than spending cuts."
The Democrats' moderate agenda was less evident on the gun control issue -- driven by outrage over last December's massacre of 20 children and six educators in Newtown, Conn.
Still, Speaker Perez surprised many in his own party when he spoke on the Assembly floor against AB 396, which would have required Californians to give up all ammunition magazines with more than 10 rounds. A gun owner himself, Perez said the intent of the 1999 ban on such large-capacity magazines never included seizing those owned before then.
San Jose State's Gerston said if any Democrats were wavering about the bill, hearing Perez' misgivings was "all they needed" to reject it.
"When you've got a healthy majority as the Democrats do, it's so tempting to ride it as far as you can because you're never going to get it again," Gerston said. "But if you ride that horse too fast, you're going to be driven out of town."
Mike Rosenberg at or 408-920-5705. Follow him at