Before Gov. Jerry Brown can ask voters to ratify the multibillion-dollar tax plan he says will rescue California’s finances, he must win over a handful of Republicans with a combination of charm, arm-twisting and compromise — a task he’s already begun.
The Democratic governor needs as few as four GOP votes to place a measure on the ballot that would extend $9 billion in recent tax hikes — levies Republicans have opposed.
“I will … go into the lion’s den and see if I can convince them to live with a little less red meat than they’re accustomed [to],” Brown said after unveiling his spending plan Monday.
The governor had already appealed to Republicans’ cost-cutting tendencies in an austerity budget that calls for $12 billion in spending cuts; in abolishing some of the state bureaucracy; and in cutting his own office budget by 25%. On Tuesday, he worked the Capitol, holding closed-door meetings with lawmakers and courting natural political adversaries whose support could help get his proposal to the ballot.
He also ordered the number of state-issued cellphones cut by half, showing legislators and voters alike that he knows the value of a dollar — and of a little political stagecraft. With a deficit now projected at $25.4 billion, Brown’s move will save only $20 million — “budget dust,” in government parlance.
Business groups — the Republicans’ natural allies — are among those whose nod could help deliver GOP votes. Bill Hauck, president of the California Business Roundtable, suggested that his organization might be amenable to the tax extension and an elimination of corporate tax breaks in Brown’s budget if linked to a cap on future state spending.
“My business folks will be supportive overall of the need to shock Sacramento out of its state of denial and start dealing with reality,” Hauck said.
Still, Republicans who vote for Brown’s plan may do so at great political risk.
In 2009, votes in favor of tax increases cost the Assembly and state Senate minority chiefs their leadership posts. One Republican assemblyman faced a recall attempt, and three of the six Republicans who voted for the tax hikes lost bids for higher office in November.
Brown, who does not need voters’ approval for the taxes but promised while campaigning that he would seek it, tried to recast the debate Tuesday. Failure to extend the taxes for five years, he said, would mean deep cuts in services that Republicans support.
“The voters have the right to make real important decisions, and deciding whether or not you extend taxes or you cut $12 billion out of things like universities and public schools, the public safety organizations — I think that’s something the voters would like to opine on and I think they have a right to do it,” he said.
Thad Kousser, a political scientist at UC San Diego, said Brown’s efforts to make the choice between taxes and public schools could help him succeed where Schwarzenegger failed two years ago. Voters then rejected an extension of the same sales, vehicle and income taxes Brown wants them to bless now.
“The way that the governor has set up the public debate gives them three excuses to bring home to their constituents,” he said. “One, they are getting major cuts in return for this ballot vote; two, they are doing this to spare K-12 education, the single most popular part of state government; and three, they are giving voters the final call.
“Those three bits of political cover make this a much easier vote for Republicans,” Kousser said.
Although he is ardently wooing Republican lawmakers, Brown has left open the possibility of forging ahead without them. Democrats are exploring obscure provisions in state law that could allow them to place the tax issue before voters without GOP support.
Brown said Monday that his preference was a bipartisan deal to renew the taxes. But he can’t make too many concessions to Republicans without risking political and financial support from the unions that helped him win election.
He must hold together the coalition of Democrats and labor that has proved fragile in recent years. Most labor groups seemed supportive of Brown’s direction, if not every detail of his budget plan.
“He’s putting options on the table,” said Steve Smith, a spokesman for the California Labor Federation. “With Schwarzenegger, it was cuts, cuts, cuts.”
“Nobody is happy” about deep reductions in state services, Smith said, “but we feel the governor is taking the right approach.”
Labor hasn’t signed on to a special election yet. Some leaders fear a repeat of 2009, when Republicans insisted on coupling tax extensions with a state spending cap. Two of the state’s most powerful unions, the California Teachers Assn. and the Service Employees International Union, split over the measure, and it failed.
This time around, union officials expect the GOP to seek laws that would rein in public employee pensions or ease workplace regulations before they would vote for the tax plan.
“We have had experiences in the past where the initial idea got so modified in the Legislature that it became … untenable for us,” said David Kieffer, executive director of the State Council of Service Employees.
“We want to make sure this one gets through the legislative process, where we can support the final product,” he said. But “the legislative process can produce odd results sometimes.”