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School funding, tax changes on Dems agenda
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SACRAMENTO  (AP) — Democratic lawmakers are starting the new year with a tail wind they haven’t had in 130 years — supermajorities in both houses of the Legislature.

They also will be working with a governor of the same political party, a combination that means they can unilaterally increase taxes, pass emergency legislation and put constitutional amendments before voters.

As the legislative session opens Monday, Democrats’ lengthy agenda includes state environmental laws, K-12 and higher education funding, and making sure California is prepared for federal health care reforms. No longer can Democrats blame minority Republicans for blocking their priorities.

“We have no more excuses,” said state Sen. Michael Rubio of Bakersfield, a Democrat who is leading what promises to be a spirited debate over tweaking the state’s pioneering environmental protection laws. “The debate changes because the answers are within our caucus.”

Gov. Jerry Brown will set the stage on Thursday when he plans to release his proposed budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1. California is on better financial footing than at any time since the recession began after voters approved Brown’s Proposition 30, which will raise an estimated $6 billion a year from temporary tax increases.

The state’s nonpartisan budget analyst projects a deficit of less than $2 billion through the next fiscal year and the possibility of surpluses after that.

The relatively rosy outlook after years of multibillion dollar deficits will let Brown call for changing the way the state provides money to schools. He is expected to propose sending more money to poorer districts and to programs for students learning English as a second language, while giving local districts more spending flexibility.

He also is expected to call a special legislative session to address administrative changes required to fully implement the national Affordable Care Act.

Diana Dooley, secretary of the state Health and Human Services Agency, said the special session is needed to ensure California law conforms to the federal health care law, and because of timing. Bills enacted in special sessions take effect in 90 days, while regular session bills cannot take effect until the following year.

Open enrollment on the exchanges is scheduled to start in October.

Dooley said legislation will be needed to set eligibility rules for Medi-Cal, the state’s program for the poor, and to make sure California’s rules for pre-existing medical conditions comply with federal law.

Despite their supermajorities, some Democratic say they want to move cautiously, fearing a backlash if they can’t restrain the most liberal members of their party. Assembly Speaker John Perez, D-Los Angeles, has said he sees little change in direction.

But Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg of Sacramento already has embraced proposals by two Senate Democrats to tinker with Proposition 13, the landmark 1978 property tax initiative, which also increased the number of votes needed to pass local tax increases.

Democratic Sens. Mark Leno of San Francisco and Lois Wolk of Davis want lawmakers to put constitutional amendments before voters that would lower the vote threshold to raise taxes for school districts and some other local governments from the current two-thirds to 55 percent. Meanwhile, Assemblyman Tom Ammiano of San Francisco is proposing a change that would require businesses to pay higher property taxes.

Steinberg also is working with Rubio to hash out changes to the California Environmental Quality Act. They, and Brown, say the four-decade-old law provides valuable protections but has been used to unduly delay worthwhile projects, costing California jobs.

“Being green and promoting growth in California are not mutually exclusive,” Rubio said.

The proposal could end up splitting the Democratic caucus between its liberal and moderate wings, he said, forcing business-friendly Democrats to form an alliance with Republicans who otherwise will play little role in the two-year legislative session.

Republicans are so powerless that even business groups are pinning their hopes on moderate Democrats to block legislation they say would harm the state’s economy.

California’s new top-two primary system lets business organizations throw their financial support behind the more moderate candidate in same-party runoff elections in November, said Rob Lapsley, president of the California Business Roundtable, which represents the state’s major employers.

They are counting on that political investment to pay off as Democrats consider raising taxes on businesses, boosting the minimum wage and making it easier for lawyers to sue businesses — all topics that Lapsley expects to arise this year.

New senators had not even been sworn into office when a 20-minute Democratic caucus last month erupted into a discussion of whether Democrats’ new supermajorities indicated a voter mandate to make sweeping changes or reflected rare and possibly fragile victories in what traditionally have been Republican-leaning areas.

Sen. Lou Correa of Anaheim is among those urging caution. Democrats benefited from a strong re-election showing by President Barack Obama, a one-time flurry of online registrations by young voters and energetic labor opposition to a ballot measure that would have prohibited unions from collecting money for political purposes through payroll deductions.

To keep their supermajorities, “we need to focus on deregulation and encouraging jobs to stay in California while protecting the environment,” Correa said. “I think it will be a very strong, healthy debate in our caucus over where we want to go.”

Members will devote the early weeks of the legislative session to introducing thousands of bills that will be considered in committees this spring. Among some of the early proposals:

— Students majoring in science, technology, engineering or math would be eligible to earn a bachelor’s degree for just $10,000 under a pilot program proposed by Assemblyman Dan Logue, R-Linda. His AB51 counts on students earning some college credits while in high school, then heading to community college before finishing up at California State University campuses. Annual tuition at CSU campuses is about $5,470, plus an additional $2,000 for fees and books.

— Campaign donors would have to reveal more information and the Fair Political Practices Commission would gain more power under several bills introduced by Democrats. The measures respond to an $11 million donation from an obscure out-of-state organization during the last campaign. AB45 by Assemblyman Roger Dickinson of Sacramento would require that large donors’ identities be revealed, while SB52 by Sens. Mark Leno of San Francisco and Jerry Hill of San Mateo would require more disclosure of groups funding political ads. SB3, by Sens. Leland Yee of San Francisco and Ted Lieu of Torrance, would require nonprofits to reveal the donors behind large contributions.

— California would establish a Homeless Person’s Bill of Rights under a bill by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco. AB5 responds to local laws against urban camping, sleeping, loitering and even sitting and lying down. It would protect the homeless from discrimination by police, employers or in obtaining public benefits, while giving them the right to use public spaces and retain their personal property.