June 16, 2013

California Democrats wrap up state budget, flex supermajority power

As the state Senate finished voting Saturday on a bill to extend a tax on managed care plans, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg told reporters at the back of the room, "That is what's called a supermajority."

The measure was a relatively modest part of the annual budget package finalized by the Legislature, but it required a two-thirds vote and afforded Democrats an opportunity to flex the supermajority power they gained in November elections.

Democrats in the Assembly not only passed the managed care tax, but also a bill that would ask voters to lower from two-thirds to 55 percent the voter-approval threshold for a local government to incur bonded indebtedness for certain public improvements. It is one of several Democratic proposals to lower the voter-approval threshold on local tax and revenue measures.

Assemblyman Bob Blumenfield, D-Los Angeles, said that bill seeks to give local agencies "tools so that they can make the choices and the investments in the infrastructure that they need to grow their economics and make their cities livable."

Republicans denounced the bond-vote measure, Assembly Constitutional Amendment No. 8, though their superminority status has rendered them ineffectual.

Assemblyman Don Wagner, R-Irvine, said, "You know and I know that bond is just a four-letter word for tax."

Following the vote on the bill, Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, said on Twitter: "All Dems went up on ACA 8. Let's just say that, for a few of them, the targets on their backs just got a little larger."

Steinberg, D-Sacramento, called the Assembly's vote a "good sign" and said he supports the bill. However, he said the upper house will not consider voter threshold issues until early next year.

After voting Friday for the state's main $96.3 billion budget bill, lawmakers Saturday finished voting on all but one of the numerous additional bills required to implement the annual spending plan. Senators planned in committee Monday to discuss the final bill, involving a coordinated care program for "dual eligibles" – people enrolled in both Medi-Cal and Medicare.

Gov. Jerry Brown is expected to sign the spending plan before the next fiscal year begins July 1.

Debate over the managed care tax reopened a dispute featured in budget hearings last year. Legislative Democrats reluctantly agreed in 2012 to start phasing out the Healthy Families insurance program in exchange for less dramatic cuts to other programs serving California's poor.

Republicans objected to the elimination of Healthy Families and – still holding enough seats to do so last year – blocked a tax on managed care because of it.

"We made it abundantly clear we would not support the managed care tax in the future if it was no longer going to be used to support the Healthy Families program," said Senate Republican leader Bob Huff of Diamond Bar.

Steinberg said funding for dental care and mental health programs, among other services, relies on funding from the tax's passage.

"Re-arguing last year's budget is not going to help the people you purport to help," he told Republican lawmakers.

On the voter-threshold measure in the lower house, Assemblyman Roger Hernández not only had a political interest in the bill passing quickly, but an intensely personal one: his own wedding.

After sitting through two roll-call votes on ACA 8, the West Covina Democrat dashed to the airport shortly before noon to take a 12:50 p.m. Southwest Airlines flight for his 3:30 p.m. wedding in Baldwin Park to Susan Rubio, a councilwoman there.

"It's a day that speaks to success in both my personal and political life," Hernández said, smiling.

Call David Siders, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1215. Follow him on Twitter @davidsiders.

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