By David Siders
Published: Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2010 – 12:00 am | Page 3A

LOS ANGELES – Gov.-elect Jerry Brown told education leaders in Los Angeles on Tuesday to “fasten your seat belt” for dramatic spending cuts to schools, while not rejecting their appeals for tax-revenue relief.

“This is really a huge challenge, unprecedented in my lifetime,” the 72-year-old former governor said at UCLA, where he appeared with financial officials for his second budget forum in a week.

After speaking in generalities about California’s budget crisis for months, Brown must make major decisions this week about the budget bill he will propose by the Jan. 10 constitutional deadline. He has estimated the deficit at as much as $28 billion over the next 18 months.

Brown has declined to say whether he plans ask voters to authorize a tax package, though many observers believe he will push for a special election to maintain higher vehicle, sales and income tax rates set to expire next year. He is also expected to propose shifting responsibility for some services to local governments.

Sen. Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, said he expects the budget proposal to be “terrible, terrible – that’s what he’s telling us,” followed by a push by Brown for taxes to preserve services that would otherwise be cut.

“My guess is he will present an austerity budget,” Lowenthal said. “And I think then he will go to the public and say, ‘This is your choice.’ ”

Unlike Brown’s forum last week in Sacramento, where Republican lawmakers were on hand to argue in favor of budget-cutting, the group of about 200 educators Tuesday focused largely on finding revenue to avoid more program damage.

“There is no more meat on this bone to carve,” David Sanchez, president of the California Teachers Association, told Brown. “The only thing left is amputation.”

Others touted specific programs they said were working to improve schools. But State Treasurer Bill Lockyer warned, “You can’t keep ducking this,” and complained about people who offer “good ideas about how to spend more money” when the state has none.

Brown said he wants to negotiate a budget agreement with the Legislature by March – which would allow time for an election on taxes if Brown is so inclined.

He said voters are skeptical of government and conflicted, wanting both to avoid service reductions while not raising taxes.

“We’re in a dilemma as a society,” Brown said.

The budget crisis has had a “devastating impact” on education in California, with billions of dollars in budget cuts leading to teacher layoffs and increased class sizes across the state, Superintendent of Public Instruction-elect Tom Torlakson said.

While education still accounts for more than half of general fund spending by the state, spending per student has declined in the recession, in inflation-adjusted dollars, from more than $9,100 in 2007 to $7,342 this year, officials said.

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