The Policies the President Pro Tem Tenure of Kevin De León Could Yield

Thursday, October 16, 2014
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Today, in a reported $50,000 self-styled inauguration, Los Angeles-area State Senator Kevin De León becomes the new State Senate President Pro Tempore.  He’ll be the first Latino Pro Tem in 130 years and as the Senate’s leader, will guide policy for the upper legislative chamber.  Over the next four years as Pro Tem (De León will be termed out in 2018), we could see four overarching policy themes emerge from the State Senate.

Proposition 187: Proposition 187 – before being struck down by the courts, it made illegal immigrants ineligible for taxpayer-funded services – was, arguably, the origin of the California Republican Party’s current struggles.  Besides creating a toxic relationship between the Latino community and the GOP, it also politically energized a host of young Latino activists.  Kevin De León was one of them.  And 20 years, almost to the day, that voters approved Prop 187, De León becomes the top legislative leader in one of the upper chamber.  We’ve already seen how his Prop 187 experiences have guided his policy ideas, but expect De León to use his perch to try strengthening the bound between the Latino community and the Democratic Party at the Republican Party’s expense.

Senate Constitutional Amendment 5 (SCA 5): SCA 5 would have reinstated affirmative action in California’s universities, despite it being banned since 1996 because of voter approved Proposition 209. While SCA 5 was introduced by Los Angeles-area State Senator Ed Hernandez, Kevin De León was an enthusiastic and vocal supporter of the measure.  It easily passed the State Senate, but was killed in the State Assembly due to strong opposition from Asian Democratic members.  De León  will continue to push for reinstated affirmative action, which will set up another clash within the Democratic caucus and between the two chambers – which at times have frosty relationships – and could present an opportunity for Republicans to repair their relationship with the Asian community.

Proposition 30: Proposition 30, passed by voters in 2012, temporary increased income and sales taxes in California under the auspices of helping to boost education spending after years of cuts.  Since then, California’s revenue collections have recovered – due to California’s highly progressive income tax reliant on high-earners, who are themselves reliant on the stock market, which has been doing well as of late.  However, despite strong revenue growth (and proof that Prop 30 funds have been spent on teachers’ pensions, not classrooms), state Democrats are already discussing pushing to either extend Proposition 30 or make it permanent, which De León has entertained.  Without a supermajority – which is likely – either of these changes will probably land in front of the voters. And until Proposition 30, voters have tended to be anti-tax on statewide tax measures, which could lead to a major rebuke for De León and his caucus.

Tax Reform:  Much to new Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins’ chagrin, Kevin De León has said comprehensive tax reform could be on the table in the coming session. De León is saying this, not because of some pro-growth epiphany, but for a political reason: former Assemblyman/Assembly Speaker and soon-to-be State Senator Robert Hertzberg. An affable politician, Hertzberg has recently championed tax reform while serving on two California good government groups – California Forward and the Think Long Committee of California.  Many expect Hertzberg to begin angling for the President Pro Tem position immediately following his election, and in an attempt to neutralize Hertzberg, De León could push for tax reform. But don’t get too excited, Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins has made it clear tax reform won’t go far in the lower chamber.

These are just a few glimpses into what policies a Kevin De León-led State Senate could push, but don’t expect much to change in Sacramento.  While tax reform could make California more competitive, the Golden Dome will continue to focus on partisan politics and anti-growth policies.

Follow Carson Bruno on Twitter: @CarsonJFBruno.

Carson Bruno, a Hoover Institution research fellow, studies California's political and policy landscape.