Skinner: Dems must choose battles, but fight some

With supermajorities in both legislative chambers, Democrats must walk a finer line than ever, Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner said Wednesday.

My coffee meeting with Skinner, D-Berkeley, yielded a wide-ranging conversation about her party’s considerable new power and the responsibilities that go with it, as well as her own legislative priorities. The former Berkeley councilwoman has just won re-election to her third and final Assembly term, and she sees a productive but sensitive session ahead.

“We’ve been given this privilege by the voters and we want to be respectful of the privilege we’ve been handed,” she said Wednesday.

The caucus must choose its battles, she said, but not choose them so carefully that none ever get fought.

She’s in a position to help choose those battles because, as the Assembly Rules Committee’s chair, Skinner is among the Legislature’s top leaders. Rules is responsible for assigning bills to committees, setting salaries for legislative staff, waiving rules and overseeing the Assembly’s business; it’s basically an executive committee for the chamber, and its seats are coveted.

But Skinner on Wednesday said the supermajorities were achieved by votes in individual districts, not a statewide vote, and so lawmakers must move cautiously to ensure they don’t salt the field.

For example, she said, voters’ approval of Proposition 30 – Gov. Jerry Brown’s measure temporarily increasing sales taxes and income taxes for the state’s richest residents to fund K-12 and higher education – was “great,” but it would take a lot more revenue to return the state’s schools, colleges and universities to their heyday.

“There’s probably appetite for some more revenue,” she said, but it has to be something that’s palatable to voters.

For example, state Sen. Ted Lieu’s proposal to triple the Vehicle License Fee – which was slashed by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, blowing a huge hole in the state budget – was withdrawn almost as soon as it was advanced last month due to public backlash. And voters in November 2010 handily rejected Proposition 21, which would’ve boosted the VLF to bankroll state parks. Voters just don’t like the VLF, Skinner said.

“We have to look at the range of … tax expenditures, what I call tax loopholes or tax giveaways, that were part of various budget deals in order to get a Republican vote” in past years, she said.

One such loophole was the single-sales factor, just repealed last month by Proposition 39; that’ll bring in about $1 billion a year, half of which for the first five years is earmarked for projects increasing energy efficiency and creating green jobs. Skinner this month introduced the Assembly version of a bill to implement that.

“But there’s others like that,” she said, citing the “net operating loss carryback” deduction that was suspended for 2010 and 2011 but will apply to 2012’s corporate taxes.

This and other loopholes, if closed, “could be worth from $2.5 billion to $4 billion, which is significant,” she said.

And of course there’s the possibility of “split-roll” reform of Proposition 13 so that residential properties remain protected but commercial properties are re-assessed more often, she said. Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, already has announced a bill to tighten state laws enacted under Prop. 13 so that it’s harder for businesses to avoid re-assessment and higher taxes when property changes hands – a half-step toward split-roll that wouldn’t require voters’ approval of a ballot measure.

Lots more, after the jump…

On energy efficiency: Skinner said her passion for energy efficiency as a weapon against climate change, as a job creator and as a cost-saver is rooted in her studies at UC-Berkeley, where she crossed paths with giants in the field such as Art Rosenfeld and John Holdren, in an era dominated by the energy crisis of the late 1970s and the Three Mile Island nuclear power accident.

On gun violence: “If we had less access to guns … you’re certainly going to lessen the worst repercussions,” she said, noting California still has a thriving illegal gun trade and no regulation of ammunition. Skinner in August co-authored a bill that would’ve required vendors who sell, supply, deliver, or give possession of more than 1,000 rounds of ammunition to an individual within any five day period to report the transaction to the local law enforcement agency where the individual resides within one day; it also would have prohibited large-capacity conversion kits or “clip kits” which allow more than 10 rounds to be shot without reloading. She’s meeting now with law enforcement and other stakeholders before drafting and introducing a similar bill this session. “We don’t want something that’s just symbolic,” she said.

On gay marriage: Skinner said she’s “nervous” that the U.S. Supreme Court chose to review Proposition 8, California’s 2010 constitutional amendment barring gay marriage, rather than just letting stand lower courts’ finding that it was unconstitutional. “I don’t want to see us go backwards,” she said. “To me, it’s just a fundamental right.”

On marijuana legalization: Introducing legislation provides an important vehicle for California’s many stakeholders to discuss the issue, she said, but ultimately legalization will probably have to be approved by voters via a ballot measure. “I believe the drug laws will change” sooner or later, she said, as racial disparities in enforcement make the current situation increasingly untenable.

Josh Richman

Josh Richman covers state and national politics for the Bay Area News Group. A New York City native, he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and reported for the Express-Times of Easton, Pa. for five years before coming to the Oakland Tribune and ANG Newspapers in 1997. He is a frequent guest on KQED Channel 9’s “This Week in Northern California;” a proud father; an Eagle Scout; a somewhat skilled player of low-stakes poker; a rather good cook; a firm believer in the use of semicolons; and an unabashed political junkie who will never, EVER seek elected office.

  • Elwood

    Skinner never met a spending proposal or a tax increase she didn’t like.

  • John W

    “But Skinner on Wednesday said the supermajorities were achieved by votes in individual districts, not a statewide vote.”

    Good observation. A recent letter to the editor said the voters did some dumb things, including “voting for supermajorities” in the state House and Senate. Of course, “supermajority” wasn’t on the ballot and probably would have been voted down if it had been. It’s not like voters were given much choice. Republicans need to put up better candidates (better-known and moderate non-pledge signers) in some of the potentially competitive districts.