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Lawmakers sworn into office, 2-year session

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POSTED December 3, 2012 7:17 p.m.

 

SACRAMENTO  (AP) — California lawmakers officially began their next two-year session Monday as they were sworn in to a newly reshaped Legislature in which Democrats hold powerful supermajorities in both houses.

Lawmakers stood with family members on the floors of the state Senate and Assembly, breaking into applause, cheers and hugs after members took the oath of office.

Voters in November gave Democrats two-thirds majorities in the Assembly and Senate, enough to raise taxes if they choose without Republican support. They also approved Gov. Jerry Brown's tax initiative, which will bring in about $6 billion a year from higher sales and income taxes on the wealthy.

"The voters do not want us to burst out of the gate to raise new taxes," said Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, who was re-elected by senators to that leadership post Monday. He said lawmakers will work to bring more high-wage jobs to the state to help boost the tax base.

"So we get the warning, we get the 'overreach' warning. We have heard it and we acknowledge it," he said. Still, he added, "there is an equally compelling danger" if "we fail to take advantage of unprecedented opportunities."

Assembly Speaker John Perez, D-Los Angeles, who was also re-elected to that post Monday, said the new legislative session marked a turning point as the state recovers from the housing and economic collapse of 2008. Perez said he welcomed the help of Republicans, despite their diminished status in both houses.

"Even though we may not always agree on the best policy prescriptions for our state, I believe very strongly in our deliberative process that's best served with your active participation," Perez said. "Finding the right solutions to the challenges facing our state is not the task of one party or one house."

Monday's events are mostly ceremonial before the Legislature adjourns for the holidays, although some lawmakers will begin introducing bills to be taken up next year. Lawmakers will consider how to address the $1.9 billion budget deficit — a far smaller gap than California is used to — after they reconvene in January. Brown, a Democrat, also has said he plans to call a special session of the Legislature after the first of the year to address health care reforms.

Half the 40 senators are newly elected or re-elected, while the other half are in the middle of their four-year terms. There is one vacancy, with a special election scheduled Jan. 8 to replace state Sen. Doug La Malfa, R-Willows, who resigned his 4th Senate District seat in a successful bid for Congress.

Nearly half the 80 Assembly members will be new to the Legislature. A spokeswoman for Perez, Robin Swanson, said in the three races that officials consider too close for the races to be called, the current front-runners will be sworn in, including in Assembly District 36, which spans parts of Kern, Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties. Democrat Steve Fox was being sworn in Monday, but Republican Ron Smith has said he will seek a recount.

It was unclear what would happen if the results were overturned and a member who had been sworn in was not elected, Swanson said.

Sen. Bob Huff, R-Diamond Bar, who will remain as minority leader, noted that the tax increases voters approved with Proposition 30 are temporary, and the state could set itself up for future problems if Democrats move to spend the money too quickly.

"We will be setting the stage for our own fiscal cliff," Huff said. "... Now is not the time to go on a spending spree."

Assembly Minority Leader Connie Conway, R-Tulare, also retains her post.

Democrats will have enhanced power this session after voters gave them veto-proof supermajorities in both chambers for the first time in decades. The two-thirds majorities mean Democrats no longer need Republican votes to approve tax increases or place ballot measures before voters, and proposals already are surfacing to rewrite the state's tax structure.

Two Senate Democrats, Mark Leno of San Francisco and Lois Wolk of Davis, said they plan to introduce constitutional amendments that would lower the vote threshold for school districts and some other local governments from the current two-thirds to 55 percent.

Assemblyman Tom Ammiano of San Francisco led his fellow Democrats in re-introducing a variation on a vetoed bill that would bar local law enforcement officers from detaining suspects for possible deportation unless they were charged with serious or violent crimes.

For the first time, new lawmakers will be able to serve 12 years in either the Assembly or the Senate, or a combination of both. Voters approved that change from previous term limits, which limited legislators to eight years in the Senate and six in the Assembly.

Lawmakers, along with California's statewide officeholders, also will be working for less pay starting Monday. The California Citizens Compensation Commission voted in May to reduce their salaries by 5 percent.

Even with the reduction, California lawmakers will remain the nation's highest paid with a base salary of $90,525 a year. Unlike lawmakers in some other states, they do not receive pensions.

The salaries for the Assembly and Senate leaders will be cut to $104,105.

"The voters are frustrated with the Legislature," Huff said in response to the pay cut. "I think it kind of is punitive, but we have to do a better job of showing that we have the state's interests at heart and not our own interests, and when we do that I think they (commissioners) will respond accordingly."

The governor's $174,000 salary will drop to about $165,000. Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom's $130,000 salary will fall to about $124,000, and Attorney General Kamala Harris will be paid less than $144,000, down from about $151,000.

Commissioners justified the action by pointing to years of state budget deficits, although voter approval of Brown's tax initiative in November is expected to give the state an actual surplus a year from now. The independent panel previously reduced salaries for California's statewide officeholders and its 120 legislators by 18 percent in 2009.

 

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