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California Democrats likely to stay moderate course despite majority

By Sharon Bernstein

SACRAMENTO (Reuters) - California majority Democrats who charted a moderate path in the legislative session that ended this week are likely to be even more cautious when they reconvene in January, fearing backlash from voters in upcoming elections, political analysts said.

In a late-night session Thursday, lawmakers pushed through last-minute bills to grant privileges for illegal immigrants, including measures to grant them drivers licenses and allow them to practice law. Lawmakers also passed several gun control measures and an increase in the minimum wage before adjourning for the year.

But for the most part, the strongly liberal agenda that many expected might appear as the session approached its close - including tougher gun laws than were finally approved and a swipe at Prop. 13, a 1970s-era law that limits the state's ability to impose taxes - did not materialize.

"Many of them are more moderate and they do face stiff challenges from the GOP for re-election," said Allan Hoffenblum, a longtime Republican strategist and campaign analyst.

A bill to regulate hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a controversial method for extracting oil from rock, passed only after it was gutted, and several gun control measures also failed to gain support.

A bill to raise the state's minimum wage to $10 passed only after backers agreed to postpone the increase until 2016, prompting business-friendly Democrats and Governor Jerry Brown, a pragmatic Democrat, to withdraw their opposition.

With November 2014 elections looming less than a year after the legislature reconvenes, Democratic leaders are likely to be even more cautious, said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political analyst who teaches at the University of Southern California.

"The closer it gets to the election, the less they're going to want to rattle the status quo," Jeffe said. "Particularly on issues such as gun control and Prop. 13."

Democrats won two-thirds majorities in both houses of the legislature last year, giving them the power to pass tax increases or put constitutional amendments to voters without any Republican cooperation.

MODERATE BASE

But the practical realities of holding onto power when some members come from swing districts has led to a cautious dance by leaders in both houses, as they maneuver to please the progressive Democrats on whom they relied for their jobs, while also not alienating their moderate base.

Assembly Speaker John Perez, for example, toes a moderate line on issues such as gun control and taxes. On Wednesday, he gave Democrats the entire day and much of the evening to muster enough votes to pass a ban on high-capacity magazines for semi-automatic weapons.

As the evening wore on, Perez even moderated his own speech patterns, speaking more slowly as backers of the bill rushed to garner support. In the end, the bill failed - with Perez among several Democrats who chose to abstain from voting on it.

"A number of members did not vote on this measure," Perez said, "And I was one of them."

Perez also placed into legislative limbo several measures meant to make it easier to raise taxes, promising to bring them up again next year. But it was not yet clear that he will do so - or that the measures will win support once they are voted on.

"Members of the legislature have to find their way through this new political and election process," said Mark Baldassare, president of the Public Policy Institute of California, a non-partisan think tank. "There were a lot of old ideas that were introduced this year, but there was a sense of, ‘Let's wait a little longer to see how things evolve.' "

Changes in election law and increasing ethnic diversity in the state also served to moderate the actions of many in the Republican caucus, some of whom represent rural districts that have growing Latino populations.

On Thursday, nearly half of the legislature's Republicans called on the U.S. House of Representatives to support immigration reform, and several voted for the bills granting more rights to immigrants living illegally in California.

Behind much of the shift to the center is a new California law that changed the way the state's primary system works.

Instead of allowing members of each party to choose candidates through a closed primary, a process that generally favored more extreme winners on both sides, California law now allows the top two vote-getters overall to advance to the general election, even if they are from the same party.

As a result, Democrats have had to reach out to Republicans in their districts, and many Republicans have had to do the same.

"They're not so representative of the far left or the far right," Hoffenblum said.

(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Eric Walsh)

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