Budget battle: Looking at the ballot

Gov. Brown, frustrated at his inability to woo at least a handful of Republicans to join him in placing a tax-and-cut budget on the ballot, faces a conundrum: How does he fulfill his public promise to voters to put the budget on the ballot with bipartisan support?

He has said privately that the Republicans were resistant to negotiation, unlike the Republicans he dealt with during his first go-round as governor. The current crop of Republicans, he said, are different.

Indeed they are.

Their districts are different, their partisanship is deeper – even deeper than the “Prop. 13 babies” who landed in the Capitol 32 years ago – and their institutional knowledge is scant. But one thing they know, at least thus far: If a Republican votes for taxes he or she may face death by a thousand cuts from shrieking talk-show hosts, business-backed, well-heeled constituents and rivals.

Senate Leader Darrell Steinberg, a Sacramento Democrat and as exasperated as the governor, recently said they were “controlled by a blogger, two talk-show hosts and a guy in Washington, D.C.,” a reference to GOP blogger and state party official Jon Fleischman and national anti-tax gadfly Grover Norquist.

But the rivals still are talking to each other.

“Budget negotiations are ongoing,” says Jann Tabor, a spokeswoman for GOP Senate Leader Bob Dutton. She did not elaborate.

“Everybody is plugging away trying to come to a resolution. We’re still focusing exclusively on getting a two-thirds vote to put the governor’s plan on the ballot. We know that the clock is ticking down,” said Steinberg spokesman Mark Hedlund.

In private conversations, the governor noted that he was considering alternatives  – long discussed – that include placing a tax-and-cut budget package on the ballot via simple-majority votes of the Legislature, Capitol sources said, a maneuver that would allow his plan to get to the ballot without Republican backing.

Polls show voters want the chance to decide the issue, and that most of them oppose new taxes. Republicans have fought the plan, contending that the act of giving voters that choice reflects support for a tax hike.

Earlier this week, several news reports noted that Brown was considering a taxes-only ballot initiative to face voters in November, which would give him and his allies more time to gather signatures and qualify the measure.  

Publicly, Brown has said he only wants a bipartisan approach to a budget election and that all the parties are negotiating in good faith.

Just who would spend the millions of dollars needed to qualify the initiative was unclear, but the assumption is that it would come from those in labor and business who have already announced their support for his budget proposals. But that support focused on a bi-partisan plan placed before voters with the approval of the Legislature, and those same moneyed groups may not be happy to finance an initiative that urges people to reimpose taxes that expired earlier.

 Publicly, the governor said he remains hopeful at getting a bi-partisan budget package and was not considering anything less than that.

He made those comments Monday at labor gathering in Sacramento, and on Tuesday morning he told a Bay Area labor group that he was determined to get his budget proposal before voters one way or another.

Brown, a Democrat, has sought Republican votes to allow voters to decide on the budget, which faces a $26 billion shortage through mid-2012. He has called for a mix of tax extensions and cuts. By one estimate, the Legislature already has made some $7.4 billion in cuts. The main budget bill, without taxes, was approved last week, as were a number of budget-linked bills.

Republican lawmakers have balked at asking the electorate to decide tax increases and thus far have blocked Brown’s efforts to corral a two-thirds vote. Democrats control both houses but lack the two-thirds votes needed to approve new levies. To get to the magic numbers of 27 in the Senate and 54 in the Assembly, the governor needs Republican votes, and so far, he doesn’t have them.

 The budget-linked bills that include critical pieces of the budget – the so-called trailer bills – can be approved with simple-majority votes and take effect immediately, under Proposition 25. Several trailer bills targeting cuts have been approved, but trailers including the tax extensions have not yet passed.

A special legislative session on the budget already has been called and could be utilized, if needed.

Senate Republicans, hoping to distance themselves from painful cuts and citing a legislative counsel’s opinion, say Democrats can place cuts and tax increases on the ballot by themselves in simple-majority votes without GOP support.

On two key issues, elimination of enterprise zones and the single sales factor, two-thirds votes likely would be needed. Eliminating the enterprise zones would remove tax breaks for businesses which, in effect, could be viewed as a tax increase. Similarly, removing the single sales factor option, in which a company decides how it wants its income taxed, could result in a tax hike.

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