Californians side with Jerry Brown in epic budget battle, poll says

Republican lawmakers are blocking Gov. Jerry Brown's attempts to put a tax-rate extension before voters this summer. But a new Field Poll shows Californians back Brown's plan.

From left, Republican state Sens. Anthony Canella, Bill Emerson, Tom Harman, and Sam Blakeslee talk at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., Wednesday. The four GOP lawmakers are part of a group known as the "Gang of 5" who have been meeting with Democrats to try to work out a budget deal.

California Gov. Jerry Brown received a boost today in his attempts to move forward on a key part of his budget plan.

The results of a new Field Poll amount to a rebuke of Republican state legislators who are blocking Governor Brown's bid to call a special election in June. Brown wants to put before voters his proposal to extend for five more years the one-cent increase in the state sales tax, the 0.5 percent increase in vehicle license fees, and the 0.25 percent increase in personal income taxes.

Some 58 percent of poll respondents said they supported Brown's plan; 39 percent said they were opposed to it.

The tax-rate extension is central to Brown's fiscal year 2012 budget, which seeks to address a $26 billion deficit. The taxes would account for $12.5 billion of the shortfall, and cuts set to go before the Legislature Wednesday would account for another $12 billion.

With time running short before a state budget deadline, Brown urgently needs four Republicans – two in the Assembly and two in the Senate – to back his plans. So far, he has won no converts.

“The poll indicates that there seems to be a disconnect between lawmakers and the electorate,” says Jessica Levinson, political reform director for the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles. “While much of the electorate lives in the center, politically, lawmakers are more strongly liberal or conservative. Clearly a large percentage of the electorate does not feel at home with either party.”

Brown's plan has hit crunch time. He wants to hold the special election by June 7 so the Legislature can make the state-mandated budget deadline of June 15. But the state requires 131 days advance notice by law – though it has held a special election on as few as 88 days advance notice in the past.

The more worrying deadline, however, might be June 30, when the tax extensions expire. After that, they would need to be reimposed from scratch as pure increases – something that the poll suggests Californians might frown upon.

By a 55-to-43 percent margin, respondents said they did not want to pay higher taxes. “However by a 61 percent to 37 percent margin, voters agree with the statement, 'I would be willing to extend the temporary tax increases enacted several years ago to help the state balance its budget,' ” the poll summary said.

Brown needs two-thirds of state lawmakers to back his plans, and Democrats are two votes shy of that supermajority in both houses. Republican lawmakers have said they are against any plan to put the extension before voters.

“We don’t buy into the myth that the answer for California’s budget deficit is half spending cuts and half tax extensions,” says Sabrina Lockhart, spokeswoman for Republican Assemblywoman Connie Conway.

Adds Mike Zimmerman, chief of staff for Republican Assemblyman Martin Garrick: Democrats "don’t have the political courage to make the cuts that would bring our spending in line with the state of the economy."

Reports suggest that the California Republican Assembly, a conservative advocacy group, wants any Republicans who back Brown's plan labeled "traitorous Republicans-in-name-only." The group is expected to forward this proposal at the state party convention in Sacramento this weekend.

Negotiations between Brown and five Republican lawmakers ended in acrimony Monday.

“There is a stark contrast between the public and the Republican negotiators,” says Barbara O’Connor, director emeritus of the Institute for Study of Politics and Media at California State University, Sacramento.

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