Republicans block Jerry Brown's budget move. What are his options now?

California's governor is unable to persuade GOP lawmakers to OK his plan to solve a looming budget shortfall. Jerry Brown might try an end run, if it's legal, or present an all-cuts budget.

By , Staff writer

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    Calif. Gov. Jerry Brown responds to a question on the the state budget while talking with reporters in Sacramento, Calif., Tuesday. Both houses of the legislature have scheduled to meet early Wednesday afternoon for floor votes on closing California's $26.6 billion deficit.
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It’s the closest thing the modern West has to a saloon brawl, say California political analysts.

California needs to close a $26.4 billion budget gap for the coming fiscal year, and new Gov. Jerry Brown (D), King Solomon-like, has proposed cutting the baby in two – making up half that figure in budget cuts and half in tax increases (or extensions). By law, he must get voter approval for the latter, and for that he needs Republican lawmakers' OK to hold a special election.

Republicans have dug in their heels, saying voters are in no mood for taxes.

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With the clock still ticking but his self-imposed deadline passed, Governor Brown is trying to win enough Republican votes (four are needed – two in the Assembly and two in the Senate) to call a special election on extending certain tax rates.

Negotiations on Monday, however, ended with Brown and five Republican lawmakers engaging in name-calling and finger-pointing. Assembly GOP leader Connie Conway declared negotiations “done and over.” With the California Republican annual convention coming this weekend, one hard-line conservative faction is introducing a resolution to censure any colleagues who vote to put additional taxes on a special election ballot. The resolution would label such colleagues “traitorous Republicans-in-name-only” and call for their resignations.

Just before Monday's meeting with GOP lawmakers, Brown had talked with a political columnist who asked what happens if Republicans don’t go along with his special election. "Everyone will come out fighting. California will become a battleground…. It'll be a war of all against all. The loser will be the people of California," Brown told columnist George Skelton of the Los Angeles TImes.

“Brown’s not always right, but he does have a record of being prophetic,” wrote Mr. Skelton.

What next? Analysts generally see two options.

One is that Brown will follow through on his threat to craft an “all cuts budget,” closing the entire $26.4 billion hole with program cuts alone. That would shrink state spending by more than one-quarter from this year's level.

“Both sides will regroup and refresh themselves and come back at the question with the added impetus of what an all-cuts budget will look like, and it’s not a pretty picture,” says Barbara O’Connor, director emeritus of the Institute for Study of Politics and Media at California State University, Sacramento.

Brown wanted a special election by June 7, and the law requires 131 days' advance notice for electioneers to write, print, and distribute ballots. But that requirement appears to be malleable. In 2009, Secretary of State Debra Bowen prepared a special election in 88 days. “I don’t think anyone knows the drop-dead deadline,” says Ms. O’Connor. “When there’s a will, there’s a way. But no one knows.”

She predicts that much politicking will go on at seven large social gatherings set for Tuesday evening in Sacramento. One is a giant gathering about emergency relief for earthquake- and tsunami-stricken Japan. Another is a benefit honoring the cofounder of the United Farm Workers, where Brown, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, and Assembly Speaker John Pérez are all expected to be speaking.

“These are the kinds of events where people can rub shoulders with one another in an informal setting and make nice,” says O’Connor. “My bet is that they will talk these things through without pointing fingers at each other – and with an all-cuts budget hanging over their heads, [they] will realize more fully what is at stake.”

Other analysts are not so sure.

“There are times in life where all choices are painful and risky. For California’s elected officials, 2011 is one of those times,” says Jack Pitney, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.

Another option is that Brown could have the Legislature put the tax extensions on the ballot by a simple majority vote. Proponents of that plan suggest that this would be legal because the measure would simply be an extension of taxes, not an imposition of new taxes (which requires the two-thirds vote). A legislative counsel approached by Senate Republican leader Bob Dutton concurred with this conclusion.

But “Brown and the legislative Democrats would rather not do it that way,” says Mr. Pitney.

“There would be legal questions surrounding such a maneuver. More important, it would deprive the Democrats of any political cover. But if this stalemate persists, it will be their only option” – unless they can live with a budget that cuts current state spending by about 27 percent.

[Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to Susan Bowen as the secretary of state of California. Debra Bowen is the California secretary of state.]

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