On the first December Monday of any other even-numbered year, Rudy Salas might've stood out from the crowd. One can imagine the newly elected Democratic assemblyman from Bakersfield standing on a bustling Sacramento street corner across from the grand dome of the state Capitol, mouth agape, passing lobbyists snickering like upperclassmen.
But Monday was no ordinary opening day for Salas or the California Assembly. Nearly half of those comprising the 80-person legislative body are freshmen. Any first-term lawmakers overcome with wonder at the grandiosity of the occasion had plenty of company. Monday's swearing-in ceremonies involved the largest freshman class -- 38, one short of the record -- since 1966.
Salas, in fact, might well have been more at ease than many of them, given the fact he previously worked as a legislative aide in the capital.
The sea of fresh faces is encouraging on one hand, disconcerting on the other. This is a state government with stubborn fiscal issues that will either be exacerbated or eased by the first legislative supermajority since 1883. Democrats hold 55 of 80 seats in the Assembly and 29 of 40 seats in the Senate. That kind of power gives Democrats the means to make things appreciably better -- or appreciably worse.
The Democratic leadership will be wise to maintain a steady hand, and for more than one reason. That supermajority will be short-lived: As many as four Democratic legislators will leave their present posts as early as April to take (or seek) other elective offices. That means the dominant party will have less than four months to approve veto-proof bills, increase taxes without Republican cooperation and put constitutional amendments on the ballot.
That's if they can rein in every member of the caucus -- no easy task given the slender margin of their supermajority and the ideological and regional diversity of their group. For that reason Salas, more fiscally conservative than most of his Democratic colleagues, will likely be the object of some attention, good and bad.
It all begins in earnest in early January, when these legislators, new and returning, head back to Sacramento after the holidays to get down to business.
These lawmakers, Democrats in particular, will do well to remember that the faith that California voters placed in them last November -- approving new taxes, increasing the number of years they're permitted to serve and handing them this rare two-thirds majority -- can quickly turn to anger and disgust if they make a mess of things or bog down the people's business with stalemate. Again.
Californians need and demand budget planning that looks to the future, not just the lawmakers' immediate statutory responsibility. They demand accountability from every agency within the state government bureaucracy. They demand transparency in the development and review of proposed legislation. And, perhaps the biggest challenge of all, given the relative inexperience of this freshman-dominated session, they demand independence from the special interests that are already smacking their lips at the thought of fresh meat. Submit to the voters, not to the lobbies.
Now get to work.