In the first State of the State speech of his new administration, Gov. Jerry Brown on Monday urged lawmakers to let voters decide the direction of the state as leaders cope with a gaping budget deficit, saying it would be "unconscionable" for them to block his request for a special election.
In a somber address to a joint session of the state Legislature, Brown again asked lawmakers to set aside their partisan differences for the good of California, which faces a $25.4 billion deficit through June 2012.
The Democratic governor has proposed a ballot measure this June that would ask voters to extend temporary increases in the state's sales, income and vehicle taxes for five years, but Republicans have said they will not allow it to go before voters.
"My plan to rebuild California requires a vote of the people, and frankly I believe it would be irresponsible for us to exclude the people from this process," Brown said. "They have a right to vote on this plan. This state belongs to all of us, not just those of us in this chamber. The voters deserve to be heard."
The budget shortfall has overwhelmed all other issues since Brown took office at the beginning of January. His budget proposal includes about $12.5 billion in spending cuts and borrowing, in addition to the tax extensions and fees that are part of a plan to raise an additional $12 billion.
Even if his plan is adopted, it will leave little money to pay for a host of state programs. Interest groups already have been lining up in protest over the expected loss of money, including mayors and other local elected officials who object to Brown's plan to eliminate redevelopment agencies that divert local tax revenue to developers.
Brown said none of those who have opposed the cuts or taxes has offered credible alternatives.
The Legislature has until March to call the election, but GOP leaders have called the tax plan a "non-starter." While Democrats are the majority party in the Assembly and Senate, some Republican support is needed to reach the two-thirds vote threshold to place the question on a ballot.
Assembly Minority Leader Connie Conway, R-Tulare, disagreed with Brown's contention that Republicans have not offered ideas. She said they have made proposals about public employee pension reform and potential cuts to other state programs, but none has appeared in Brown's budget plans.
"Don't just tell me, 'I'm willing to work on those things if they're reasonable.' I want to see those reforms. I want to see what that looks like" in Brown's plan, Conway said. "And maybe the dance has just begun. Maybe we've been talking and talking and now we will get to more specifics."
Conway and other Republican leaders noted that voters had already rejected extensions of the same taxes in a 2009 special election.
"Voters said in 2009, 'No, we don't want to give you two more years of taxes beyond what you've already asked for. 'The voters said this last November, 'No, we don't want to pay you an extra $18 surcharge for parks.' I mean, I don't know how many times the voters got to tell you 'no,' until you figure out the right way to try to sell it," said Senate Minority Leader Bob Dutton, R-Rancho Cucamonga. "Is that what we're doing here?"
While Californians have rejected calls for higher taxes in the past, a survey by the California Public Policy Institute last week found that two-thirds of likely voters say they support Brown's proposal for a special election. Voters said they were willing to pay more for public schools but do not support increased spending if it goes to pay for prisons, according to the poll.
Brown's administration has so far shied away from spelling out the anticipated consequences if the tax extensions do not go through, but public schools that get the largest share of funding in the state budget likely would be hit hardest. Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, said Democrats will lay out the harsh choices over the next few weeks.
"People have a right to determine whether or not they want $25 billion worth of cuts," Steinberg said. "And over the next several weeks, you know, we'll begin to discuss in some detail what that second $12.5 billion of cuts would mean to classrooms, to the length of the school year, to any services for the elderly or the disabled, to higher education, where the fees are already too high."