Political math toughens for Democrats as Calderon takes leave

In the middle of Sunday night's Academy Awards, the embattled state senator who allegedly offered favors to an undercover FBI agent posing as a movie executive announced a temporary exit via stage left -- not permanent, not just yet. In so doing, he upped the dramatic intrigue about the remainder of the 2014 legislative season in Sacramento for his fellow Democrats.

No offense to the Oscars, but who needs a movie?

Sen. Ron Calderon, D-Montebello, announced a leave of absence from his duties after being indicted last week on 24 federal charges of political corruption. The decision came just hours before a deadline set by his fellow Senate Democrats for him to either step aside or be formally suspended by the upper house as soon as Monday.

"I will take this time to focus on fighting these charges," said Calderon in a statement released by his state office. "I do not want to distract from the important work of the Senate and my colleagues on serious issues affecting my constituents and the people of California."

As rare as it is for a sitting legislator to take an extended leave of absence, Calderon's decision was the second such action in less than a week. On Feb. 25, state Sen. Rod Wright, D-Inglewood, also decided to step aside due to legal troubles. In Wright's case, it was eight guilty verdicts delivered by a Los Angeles County jury in January -- verdicts of voter fraud and perjury in relation to a long case over whether the senator lived in his senatorial district during his 2008 campaign.

Wright and Calderon not only represented two of the most reliable 'moderate' votes among Senate Democrats, they also represented the 27th and 28th members of that caucus – that is, the vote and spare vote that gave Democrats supermajority power.

Now, that's gone.

The impact of Democrats losing their supermajority status in the Senate is, to be fair, unclear. And in truth, it may even be negligible. There were all kinds of predictions after the 2012 elections that Democratic legislators would flex their newly super-sized political muscle to do things like raise taxes and override vetoes from a more restrained Gov. Jerry Brown. But in most cases, legislative leaders derailed such efforts before proposals ever reached floor votes.

The end of the Senate supermajority won't impact state budget negotiations this year. 2010's Proposition 25, which lowered the budget vote threshold to a simple majority in each house, stripped minority Republicans of their most valuable weapon in Capitol political skirmishes of years past.

But other problems could arise for Democrats, including Brown.

Two of the most closely watched issues in the final six months of the legislative session will both, if anything's going to gel, require supermajority votes: a water bond and a constitutional amendment to boost the state's budget reserve process. Both will require at least 54 votes in the Assembly and 27 votes in the Senate to make their way to a vote of the electorate.

How would either of these be shaped with the new need to court Republican senators? Is that kind of bipartisan threshold simply too high?

On water, Republicans have made it clear that they think a multi-billion dollar bond proposal must include more surface storage like dams. Environmental groups have done a pretty good job at keeping Democrats away from most dam construction projects, but it's hard to see how any GOP senators will give a thumbs-up to a water proposal without something beyond what's been done so far.

And on the budget reserve fund, the debate has always been whether any proposal will sock away enough cash to close an unexpected deficit in years to come, or would set aside so much tax revenue as to serve as a de facto cap on state spending. Democrats have generally favored a looser system, Republicans one that's more stringent.

It's worth remembering that proposals covering both of these issues -- a water bond and a new budget 'rainy day' fund -- are already on the November ballot, proposals crafted years ago and delayed from earlier elections by votes of the Legislature. It's also noteworthy that both of the existing proposals were the product of bipartisan agreements in the Capitol, agreements that came after long and often-criticized sessions of political horse trading.

Some will no doubt point out that neither Calderon nor Wright was a reliable liberal vote and therefore would have been hesitant to support the kinds of water and budget ballot measures favored by the party's base interest groups. But both senators still would have been more inclined to join their fellow Democrats than Republicans, who both simply see things differently and may worry about giving Democrats any big political victories in an election year.

These are only the most obvious issues in the Capitol that are now left with a different set of political odds. The timing of the two senators' departures was especially lousy for Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg's call for a new carbon tax on fuels, an idea he rolled out in a speech just ten days before Calderon agreed to start saying home.

It would have been hard enough getting all 28 Democrats in the state Senate to vote for that plan. Now, with only 26 Democrats… he'd need at least one Republican to break ranks and vote for a multi-billion dollar tax. And that would be a political plot line worthy of an Oscar.


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