Former Gov. Jerry Brown traveled to Sacramento on Wednesday to publicly criticize his old chief of staff and political protege, warning that cuts to local government funding proposed by Gov. Gray Davis could bring Oakland, where Brown is mayor, to the brink.
It was a symbolic attack on the Davis administration's budget plan, followed later in the day by another as Democrats in the Legislature called for significant cuts at the Department of Corrections, which Davis has urged be spared.
"In Oakland last Sunday, police didn't put out as many people as they probably should have," Brown told the Senate Local Government Committee, using a fanciful scenario in a speech filled with trademark rhetorical flourishes. "Stores were burned because of a fear of inadequate money.... Part of that fear derives from the governor's message that this money won't be available."
Brown is among scores of political leaders calling for vehicle license fees to be restored to their higher, 1998 levels, which would make up for the $4.2 billion Davis proposed to cut from local governments. Davis wants to use that money to help bridge the state's budget gap, projected to be $26.1 billion to $34.6 billion over the next 17 months.
Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson (D-Culver City) submitted a bill this week to raise the car tax, and such a proposal was approved by the state Senate last year, where support for it remains strong.
Davis continues to express reluctance over such a tax.
Finance Director Steve Peace said Wednesday that an increased car tax would probably come at the cost of other tax increases Davis is proposing. That would still leave the state billions of dollars short in its attempt to balance the budget, Peace said, forcing even steeper cuts in education, health care and other services.
Raising the car tax "does absolutely nothing to help us fix this budget gap," he said, adding that doing so would send the wrong message to Wall Street and could damage the state's credit ratings.
Brown, however, suggested that the reluctance to increase the car tax has more to do with polls showing voters oppose it.
"This is not a time for polls," said Brown, who was governor from 1975 to 1983 and had Davis as his chief of staff. "This is a time for profiles in courage. At some time you've got to do that."
Committee Democrats joined the Oakland mayor in calling for the increase, and some went a step further, suggesting that the increase could be used to coax local governments into meeting state quotas for affordable housing that have long been neglected.
Sen. Tom Torlakson (D-Antioch) said he is working on a proposal that would require local governments to comply with state-mandated housing plans before receiving their share of the new tax money. Many cities flout the quotas, and there is no mechanism for punishing them.
Meanwhile, in an early bit of jousting with the Davis administration, a Democrat-controlled Senate budget subcommittee, voting along party lines, recommended paring as much as $150 million from the Department of Corrections' budget next fiscal year.
While he cut almost all other major programs, Davis has proposed a $40-million increase in the $5.2-billion prison budget, contending that reductions could place public safety at risk.
Sen. Byron Sher (D-Stanford), the subcommittee's chairman, called on department officials to offer reductions, or else face having legislators trim the prison budget.
"There is a feeling among [Senate] leadership and members that there should be and is room for significant savings in the Department of Corrections," Sher said.
The subcommittee voted to approve a year's delay in opening a new prison at Delano that is set to open in December. An Assembly subcommittee had already taken that step.
The issue of Indian gaming also came up at the Capitol on Wednesday, as Peace revealed that the governor's proposal to raise $1.5 billion in new revenue annually from the casinos would not involve any expansion of gambling activity, as the administration implied previously. The money would come instead from current operations, Peace said.
In a matter unrelated to the budget, Davis moved Wednesday to correct a constitutional flaw in the state Coastal Commission by calling for a special legislative session on the issue.
A Sacramento appeals court ruled Dec. 30 that the commission's structure violates the state Constitution's doctrine on separation of powers because the Legislature can appoint and fire a majority of the members.
That special session will begin today.
Times staff writer Gregg Jones contributed to this report.