Anti-tax groups face a tall order this November. There’s priority one: defeating the competing multi-billion-dollar tax-increase plans of Gov. Jerry Brown and liberal activist Molly Munger. Both propositions will receive tens of millions of dollars in campaign contributions from unions and special interest groups.
Even if both measures fail, Democrats have a backup plan to push tax increases through the state Legislature. State tax increases require two-thirds approval of both houses. Democrats are expected to be within just a handful of seats in the state Assembly. In past years, when Republicans held only a notch above one third of the seats, legislative Democrats have successfully picked off a few moderate Republican votes for tax increases.
Thanks to redistricting gains and a chronically underfunded opposition, Democrats are a lock to reach two-thirds control of the state Senate. “A candidate’s view on taxation will be the central issue in swing senate districts,” wrote Joel Fox, editor of Fox & Hounds and president of the Small Business Action Committee. “A newly Democratic controlled Senate will vote for taxes from time to time. Especially if taxes are perceived to fall on someone else — that famous man behind the tree in the ditty, ‘don’t tax me, don’t tax thee’ tax the man behind the tree’.”
But, before you send a bigger check to Sacramento, consider an ironic scenario that could be taxpayers’ saving grace in 2013. Two even-numbered state senators running in two different congressional races could set off a chain reaction of events that would effectively block tax increases for most of the year.
State Senators Gloria Negrete McLeod and Juan Vargas, both of whom have records of supporting tax increases, have made their respective runoffs for the House of Representatives. If both pro-tax Democrats win their congressional races, their state Senate seats would remain vacant until they could be filled by special elections. The pair’s victories would reduce the Democratic caucus by two members and effectively erase Democrats’ two-thirds’ advantage.
“The vacancies do not change the threshold for the two-thirds requirement, which is 27 seats in the Senate,” confirmed Bernadette McNulty, chief assistant secretary of the Senate. In other words, taxpayers would be temporarily protected with the career advancement of the two pro-tax Democrats.
Vacancies Filled by Special Elections
Prior to being sworn into Congress, the pair would need to resign from the state Senate. Depending on how quickly Gov. Brown called a special election, it could take up to 120 days from the date of their resignation to fill the vacant seats. During that period, Democrats would need to pick up additional Republican votes for tax increases. In 2011, it took approximately 16 weeks for then-Assemblyman Ted Gaines to fill a vacant state Senate seat.
Both Negrete McLeod and Vargas hold safe Democratic seats, so it would be only be a matter of time until Democrats regained their supermajority control of the state Senate. However, it would likely be a zero-sum game for legislative Democrats. Every seat picked up by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, could be a direct loss for Assembly Speaker John Perez, D-Los Angeles.
After all, the strongest contenders in an abbreviated campaigns would be members of the state’s lower house, who have built-in name identification and a proven fundraising network. In the process of filling Senate seats, there could be vacancies in the state Assembly. More importantly, every member of the Assembly to move up to the Senate would trigger another special election process and potential four-month delay.
Howard Jarvis Taxpayers: ‘Appreciate Any No Vote’
The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, the state’s leading anti-tax group, says that when it comes to tax increases, any no vote is a good vote.
“While our first choice is a responsible Legislature that recognizes that taxes are too high, not too low, in the real world we appreciate any ‘N0’ vote, even if that vote is the result of a vacancy,” explained Kris Vosburgh, executive director of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association. “California already ranks at or near the top in tax burden, and taxpayers are grateful for any advantage that helps level the playing field.”
He added that the goal of Proposition 13 “was not to make tax increases impossible, but to create a system that required taxes to be approved with a strong consensus based on clear, demonstrable need.”
An Empty Seat: The Best Representative?
Not all Republican leaders see the vacancies as a positive development for California, conservative philosophy or the Republican Party.
“If one’s over-riding interest is a narrow definition of tax policy, then, yes, I suppose an empty seat might be preferable to one filled by a hard-line anti-tax conservative who might question the narrow edict of The Pledge in the interest of pursuing the larger strategic priorities,” said former Republican Assemblyman Roger Niello, who broke ranks with his caucus in 2009 to support Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s $13 billion dollar tax hike. “But with the tax pledge (and this could apply to others, too), the rigid dogma attached to it has elevated a no tax policy to an over-arching strategy. That is true dysfunction.”
Niello added that conservative philosophy involves more than just taxes and includes “such things as personal responsibility, free market economy, limited government, effective and efficiently focused government responsibilities and local control.”
Top Two Primary Turns Senators into Strong Challengers
So how likely is it that 2013 turns into another year of special elections? For starters, the pair of Democratic state senators must win their congressional races. Both are plausible candidates; one is almost guaranteed.
Vargas, who is running for the open 51st House seat, faces only token opposition from Republican challenger Michael Crimmins. In the June primary, Vargas’ vote share was more than double that of Crimmins. Altogether the Democratic field combined for more than 70 percent of the vote.
Meanwhile, Negrete McLeod’s road to Washington is more difficult. She is challenging fellow Democrat Rep. Joe Baca in the 35th House district. In the June primary, Baca finished first with 45 percent of the vote. Negrete McLeod wasn’t far behind, trailing by only 2,500 votes or 8.5 percentage points. The only other candidate, the Green Party’s Anthony Vieyra, pulled in nearly 19 percent of the vote.
The Top Two primary system could also bolster Negrete McLeod’s chances. There’s likely to be little difference between the Democrats’ voting records in Congress. Republican voters without a Republican on the ballot might be encouraged to support Negrete McLeod, if for no other reason than to temporarily block state tax increases.
State Senate Campaigns: Central Issue Taxes
Of course, this unexpected turn of events also relies on Democrats first taking a supermajority of the state Senate. Most Capitol insiders believe the State Senate is a lost cause for California Republicans, who spent more than $1.2 million on a futile attempt to advance a referendum on the Citizen Redistricting Commission’s Senate maps. Ultimately, that money could have been spent to bolster the campaigns of the party’s three swing candidates in the 5th, 27th and 31st districts.
Democrats need to win just one of three swing state Senate races this cycle in order to reach the all-important two-thirds threshold. Those three seats are the 5th Senate race between Bill Berryhill and Cathleen Galgiani; the 27th Senate race between Todd Zink and Fran Pavley; and the 31st race between Jeff Miller and Richard Roth.
In addition to the two Democrats, another state senator, Republican Doug LaMalfa of Oroville, has a free shot at Congress. He holds a safe Republican seat and has signed Americans for Tax Reform’s Taxpayer Protection Pledge.