2011-03-30 "Democrats weighing all budget options" by Steven Harmon from "Contra Costa Times" newspaper
SACRAMENTO -- With budget negotiations in tatters, Democrats are looking at the few options available to them to escape the $15 billion deficit that still looms over the state.
None are painless and most will result in highly charged partisan showdowns. One thing is clear: a June special election is out.
But, by saying he was ready to take his case to voters, Gov. Jerry Brown signaled that he may still be holding out hope of persuading some Republicans to agree to a public vote on his tax extension proposal. "I'm going to explore every possible avenue," Brown said in a YouTube video he released Tuesday. "There's more than one way to get to the goal."
Brown and Democratic legislative leaders appear to have ruled out forcing a vote on a special election through a majority vote. Aside from the legal challenges, Democrats seem reluctant to try to take a tax issue to the voters without the veneer of bipartisanship. The governor was asking for a vote to continue, for the next five years, the 2009 tax increases on purchases, income and vehicles to generate $11 billion a year.
A fall initiative campaign, which Brown was said to be considering, could delay the budget, hurt the state's credit rating, create a statewide stoppage of public works projects and force the state to take drastic action such as issuing IOUs to keep the government afloat. All of this has happened before but that stakes are higher this time.
But Brown, who has anendless supply of confidence in his ability to persuade voters of his logic, may like the idea of waging direct campaigns in the handful of Republican districts that are already competitive and may become even more so after district lines are redrawn later this summer.
Brown has not laid out the course he intends to take -- likely because he has not made a decision -- but his political adviser, Steven Glazer, said "we need legislators and voters to understand the choices and consequences in balancing the budget."
Labor groups are giving some thought to a public campaign, said Steve Smith, spokesman for the California Labor Federation.
"One option is to have conversations in those districts with voters about school closures, cuts to public safety and parks," Smith said.
The hope is that a critical mass of worried constituents would force Republican legislators back to the bargaining table, where they would hammer out an agreement to put a tax extension on the ballot. Pressure could be brought to bear as the June 15 constitutional deadline approaches and the devastating cuts for schools and public safety become more real.
But even if that rosy scenario unfolded by mid-June, an election wouldn't occur until late summer -- perhaps in September because of the 88 days needed to prepare ballots.
In the meantime, the Legislature would have to fulfill its constitutional obligation to present a balanced budget -- which could mean $15 billion in cuts that further decimates schools and public safety, Democrats said.
"Pink slips would have to be issued to teachers because schools only spend what they know they will have," said Nathan Barankin, spokesman for Senate Leader Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento.
The only way to avoid deeper cuts is if the Legislature can come up with a two-thirds vote on a straight tax increase, an idea that appears to be gaining support in critics' corners. That would, however, defy Brown's campaign promise of not raising taxes without a vote of the people. And, as Brown has said, it would defy the logic of the Capitol, where Republicans wouldn't even allow a vote of the people on tax extensions.
Republicans went for broke in the negotiations, turning in a wish list of 53 separate demands after rejecting some concessions by Brown on pension and regulatory rollbacks.
"Hey, there's no rabbit to be pulled out of any hat," Barankin said. "There are no good answers. None. It's just a matter of how painful it'll be and how people react to the new reality."
Whichever direction Democrats take, it may take a while to overcome the bitterness of failing to negotiate with Republicans, observers said.
Steinberg was visibly upset in describing how the talks had crumbled, saying Republicans "appear to want to be irrelevant and seem intent on achieving that objective." He claimed the Republican party was "increasingly on the fringe of California politics" and that they "have done a pretty good job of running out the clock."
Even in his anger -- with his so-called "mood meter" resting at "exasperated" in his office -- however, Steinberg said that Democrats hope to continue discussions with the handful of Republicans who had been negotiating before Brown halted the talks.
"Nothing is really ever over in the state Capitol," said Dan Schnur, an aide to Gov. Pete Wilson and director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California. "The governor may be trying to push Republicans back to the table, or laying the groundwork for a Democrats-only budget. It could be a lot of things, but it's definitely not over."