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Brown Taps Deep Political Skills To Sell Budget

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(credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

(credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

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SACRAMENTO (AP) — Jerry Brown promised Californians plenty of pain in his budget plan for the coming year, and he was right.

He has proposed $12 billion in spending cuts, much of it coming from higher education and services for the poor, disabled and elderly. And he wants to ask voters in a special election to extend increases in the sales, income and vehicle taxes.

Republicans and anti-tax groups already are dismissing Brown’s plan to extend the tax hikes for another five years to pay for a host of programs, drawing a line in the sand just weeks into Brown’s term.

But after spending most of his life in politics, the Democratic governor is unlikely to cede his proposal to the hyper partisanship that permeates the Capitol.

Instead, Brown will try to marshal all the skills he has amassed over a lifetime in politics to sell his plan, but he will have to do so quickly.

To put the tax measure before voters in a June special election, the Legislature will need to act by the end of March. That will be a tall order for an institution that typically runs well past the July 1 start of the fiscal year before enacting a budget. Last year, it set a record by going 100 days without a spending plan.

First, Brown must convince Democrats that slashing billions of dollars to social services and higher education is a fair trade for the opportunity to put an extension of the tax hikes enacted two years ago on the ballot. Then, and likely much more difficult, he will need to win over two-thirds of the state Legislature, including some Republicans, to get a measure on the ballot.

While Democrats have strong majorities, two GOP votes in the Assembly and three in the Senate are needed to meet the two-thirds vote threshold for enacting tax increases and placing measures on the ballot. Republican legislative leaders in both houses have pledged to block Brown’s efforts.

Brown already has launched the kind of sales pitch that most lawmakers did not see during seven years of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s administration. The former Republican governor was criticized for ignoring most lawmakers in favor of private meetings with a select few to negotiate deals on major issues.

Last week, Brown met with the Republican and Democratic caucuses in each house, and later made an impromptu stop at a state Board of Education meeting.

The Legislature is a much different institution then when Brown was last governor, from 1975 to 1983, before voters imposed term limits. Most politicians stay for a relatively short time and have their eye on another office.

There are 120 different egos and agendas, said Steve Merksamer, a Republican attorney and former chief of staff to Gov. George Deukmejian.

“Having said that, I think Jerry Brown is extraordinarily skilled at working, sort of, the legislative process. He was born to this,” he said. “He’s done it already, and he’s been doing this his entire life.”

Brown is appealing to interest groups, business leaders and politicians to step away from their entrenched interests, and already has displayed some prowess at winning hearts.

One of his first meetings after being sworn in as governor this month was held with a bipartisan group of officials from the California State Association of Counties, where supervisors also noticed the change in tone. Brown came to the association’s office, rather than summoning those officials to his Capitol office, Yolo County Supervisor Mike McGowan noted.

“We didn’t have to trot over there like little children and go into the governor’s office and get patted on the head and say ‘Bad things are going to happen to you.’ We had an opportunity to have a real dialogue and a conversation,” McGowan said after the first meeting with the Democratic governor.

Brown has made it clear that he wants the ultimate decision about taxes left to voters, not politicians. During his gubernatorial campaign last year, he promised to raise taxes only if voters approved.

“This is a democracy. People get to (decide) what they want,” Brown said to reporters as he released his budget proposal last week. “I’m just going to lay out the facts, and whatever they decide is going to be the result.”

He acknowledged the deep divisions in California’s political environment but implored leaders to step away from their narrow interests as they weigh the state’s future.

“There are very different views of what the state needs. I’m not going to try to resolve that as the chief executive here. I’m trying to forge a consensus, a wider agreement, get people out of their ideological positioning,” he said. “I want to do that in an openhanded, openhearted way.”

The governor’s negotiating skills have evolved since his last stint on the job, drawing from his experience working alongside Mother Teresa in India and studying in a Buddhist monastery in Japan, both of which he did after losing a U.S. Senate bid in 1982.

He also has served two terms as mayor of Oakland, where he learned the challenges facing local government, and spent the last four years as state attorney general.

Brown’s budget proposal also includes a realignment of power, allowing local governments to take over many functions now overseen by the state. City and county governments are better at assessing their own needs and will be more efficient in delivering services, thereby saving money, he said.

Not coincidentally, voters also have shown more willingness to raise taxes for local initiatives than for supporting state government. Last November, for example, voters rejected an $18-a-year increase in the vehicle license fee to fund state parks, even though all vehicles with a California license plate would have gained free admission.

California voters also rejected a proposal to extend the income, sales and vehicle tax increases during a special election in May 2009, just a few months after the Legislature approved the increases during a contentious midyear emergency session.

Part of Brown’s sales pitch this time is that most of the tax revenue from the sales tax and vehicle license fee extensions, if approved at the polls, would go to cities and counties.

“The taxpayers and voters must be clear about what these funds will be used for and understand they are dedicated for specific programs at the local not state level,” his budget proposal says.

Brown’s strategy also relies on a promise to protect public schools from the deepest cuts, ensuring support from the powerful and deep-pocketed California Teachers Association.

But implicit in his message as he released his budget last week was a dose of bitter medicine.

If Republicans prevent the tax question from going to the ballot, or voters reject the proposal, public schools will face massive spending cuts. Kindergarten through 12th grade education accounts for nearly 43 percent of the $84.6 billion general fund in Brown’s budget plan.

Public education is one area in which residents have shown consistent willingness to increase taxes. Seven in 10 respondents told pollsters from the Public Policy Institute of California last May that they would be willing to pay higher taxes to support K-12 education. More than half said they would pay more taxes for higher education and health and human services.

“The more people understand the tax increase as being for schools and the more they think there will be some accountability at the local level, the more willing they are to support tax increases,” said Mark Baldassare, the institute’s director.

A state Department of Finance official testified last week that the additional taxes would cost the average California household $260 a year.

The state’s leading anti-tax group, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, said it will lobby Republican lawmakers to hold firm and not place the tax extensions on the ballot. If that strategy fails, the group has promised a strong opposition campaign.

“We are prepared to fight and, quite frankly, … we have resources already prepared for this fight and we’re going to expend them,” said Jon Coupal, president of the association.

Brown’s gambit is risky: If he cannot get the tax extensions, balancing the state’s budget will be immeasurably harder. The state has an $8.2 billion shortfall in the current fiscal year and a $17.2 billion deficit — or 20 percent of the general fund — in the year that begins July 1.

Lew Uhler, president of the Roseville-based National Tax-Limitation Committee, questions Brown’s strategy but said a rejection of the tax extensions would provide Brown political cover to make even deeper cuts to state government.

“One should never underestimate that fellow,” Uhler said. “He’s very bright, and he’s obviously addressing the issue in a serious way.”

(© Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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