By David Siders
dsiders@sacbee.com
Published: Friday, Dec. 3, 2010 – 12:00 am | Page 1A

Gov.-elect Jerry Brown, largely absent from public view since Election Day, next week will launch an unusual, highly public campaign to tell Californians how dire the state budget crisis really is.

The event – a forum to which Brown is inviting the state’s lawmakers – is at least in part a political measure by Brown to remind voters that the budget crisis is inherited. It also is to prepare the Legislature and the public for a January budget proposal in which Brown, facing an estimated $25.4 billion deficit, is almost certain to make highly unpopular recommendations.

Brown, the 72-year-old former governor, won’t take office until Jan. 3, and the forum in Sacramento on Wednesday will occur as lawmakers convene in a special budget session called by the incumbent governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Democrat Brown is likely the following week to host a forum with education leaders in the Los Angeles area and to discuss health and human services in the Bay Area, but those plans are tentative.

“Certainly this is out of the ordinary,” said Renee Van Vechten, an assistant professor of government at the University of Redlands. “It’s a bit of an orientation to Jerry Brown and his administration and his style of working with people. It’s not just about the budget.”

Brown spokesman Sterling Clifford said Schwarzenegger was made aware of the meeting and did not object.

“It’s a special session on the budget, and this is a meeting about the budget,” Clifford said. “I don’t think they conflict.”

Brown will find it far more difficult, if not impossible, to make major spending cuts or to raise taxes if he cannot convince voters of the severity of the crisis, said Michael Genest, a former state finance director.

He called the forum a “positive development” and said, “Maybe he’s going to pull the bandage off and see what it looks like, and that’s what he has to do.”

Brown has remained largely cloistered in the month since Election Day, spending most of that time meeting with advisers about the budget. He has described the deficit as “an enormous, unprecedented gap” and has said “not a lot of people have many good ideas on how to deal with it.”

Brown himself has offered few specific proposals to address the shortfall. Clifford said none will be forthcoming next week.

“This is a meeting to make sure everyone’s on the same page in terms of the size and scope of the problem,” Clifford said. “It’s not a solutions meeting. It’s a ‘define the size and scope of the problem’ meeting.”

The invitation-only forum at Memorial Auditorium will involve constitutional officers, Finance Director Ana Matosantos and Legislative Analyst Mac Taylor. Lawmakers and local officials from throughout the state are expected to attend. The event is open to the media, and Brown’s advisers are considering streaming it online.

Most Californians believe the state’s budget crisis can be resolved without massive service reductions or tax increases but by eliminating waste and inefficiency, a line of thinking promoted by some politicians, according to a recent University of Southern California/Los Angeles Times poll.

To the extent that Brown can convince voters otherwise, next week’s forum could be productive, said Darry Sragow, who served as interim director of the poll during the fall elections.

“Voters think you can close the deficit by cracking down on fraud, waste and abuse. That’s simply not true,” he said. “But it’s a mistake to think that voters are reaching those inconsistent conclusions because they’re somehow idiots, because they’re not idiots. They just don’t have any information.”

Tom Dresslar, spokesman for Treasurer Bill Lockyer, said Thursday that the forum is important to focus attention on the budget.

“You’ve got to start with talking to the people straight about what the problem is, how serious it is, before you can make some serious headway,” Dresslar said.

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