California budget: Have Republicans outfoxed Jerry Brown?

Republican lawmakers refuse to give in to Gov. Jerry Brown and his plan to fix the California budget through a special election on tax extensions. That leaves Brown with few palatable options.

By , Staff writer

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    Gov. Jerry Brown told reporters in Sacramento, Calif., Wednesday that he was still trying to reach a compromise with Republican lawmakers on the California budget. He wants to put a tax extension on a special election ballot.
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With time quickly running out and public opinion turning against him, Gov. Jerry Brown appears to have few options to save his California budget plan, none of them good.

Facing him are Republican legislators who don’t want to allow a key element of his plan – $12 billion in tax extensions – go before a public vote. At stake is the $26.4 billion budget gap, which Governor Brown helped trim Thursday by approving $11.2 billion in cuts, including hikes in community-college fees and slashed welfare grants.

Brown insists that he can still sway four Republicans – two in the Assembly and two in the Senate – to back his tax-extension plan, giving it the votes needed to put it on the ballot this summer. But as the stalemate in Sacramento continues, and with polls showing Californians' support for the extensions slipping, some political scientists are asking whether Brown has been outflanked by a younger generation of politicians playing by different rules.

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“What he fails to understand is that in today's highly polarized political arena, ideologically extreme position-takers consistently beat old-school partisan compromisers," says Lara Brown, a political scientist at Villanova University in Pennsylvania and author of “Jockeying for the American Presidency.”

This generation of politicians understands that Democrats "are better off fighting and standing their ground – showing the liberal Democratic base in California that they are principled, than they are in giving into the demands from what is – and has been for some time – the minority party in the state,” says Professor Brown.

The Republicans, meanwhile, "would also rather fight it out, because it allows them to cast the Democrats as extremist incumbents who are letting the state slip into insolvency, which then helps them in their attempt to recruit moderates and Independents," she adds. "Governor Brown, who came into politics in a different era, has yet to realize that he, like [former gov. Arnold] Schwarzenegger, will likely be the one to sustain the mortal wounds in this partisan duel.”

With every passing day, Brown's task becomes more urgent. He wants to hold the special election before June 30, when the current tax rates expire. But the state needs 131 days to prepare for a special election (though it has held one in the past on 88 days advance notice).

Potential Plan Bs

News reports suggest that Brown is looking at two options to bypass Republicans.

One would be to call a special election on a simple majority vote in the Legislature, as opposed to the two-thirds vote typical of such measures. A legislative counsel has suggested that method might be legal, but it would certainly be challenged by Republicans and might be seen by voters as legislative sleight of hand.

Another option would be to put the measure on the November ballot. But under that approach, current tax rates will have expired, meaning Brown would then be asking voters for a tax increase, not an extension. Polls show voters are more amenable to an extension. Moreover, a November ballot would delay a final budget solution months past the June deadline, likely forcing California to issue IOUs to pay its bills.

“Brown has a few options, none of them great at this point,” says Robert Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies.

“If he and the Republicans agree on something, the unions might oppose it, and it won’t get voter approval," he says. "If he puts something on the ballot with only Democrats supporting it, he may not get public approval because it looks partisan. If he goes the initiative route, he has to wait until November when the fiscal situation will be much worse. And there may be conservative initiatives on the same ballot.”

To add to the bad news for Brown, polls show that support for the tax extension has dropped to 46 percent – down from 53 percent in January.

Brown 'still focused on Plan A'

Brown Press Secretary Gil Duran says Brown is still focused on getting Republican approval for the special election he needs. “At this point, all those stories are just anonymously sourced noise,” says Mr. Duran. “Brown’s still focused on Plan A and believes the votes he needs are in the building.”

Brown needled Republicans as he signed the $11.2 billion in budget cuts Thursday: "I find it shocking that elected representatives can so cavalierly say to people, 'Shut up, you have no right to weigh in on this.' "

Sabrina Lockhart, press secretary for Assembly Republican leader Connie Conway, counters that the Legislature must make more tough choices as opposed to falling back on tax revenues. “These ideas include ... controlling state spending with a strict spending cap and reining in soaring public pension costs,” she says.

But Brown could still have one trump card to play.

At some point soon, he will lay out his alternative to the tax extensions – further budget cuts to cover the entire $26.4 billion deficit. The cuts would be breathtaking and could force some Republicans to compromise, says Barbara O’Connor, director emeritus of the Institute for Study of Politics and Media at California State University, Sacramento.

She adds: “Brown will release his all cuts budget soon and the alarm will be palpable.”

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