10:00 PM PST on Monday, January 17, 2011

Sacramento Bureau

SACRAMENTO – Major hurdles await Gov. Jerry Brown as he tries to get support for billions of dollars worth of tax extensions in a possible special ballot in June, the least of which is that there are no Santa Ana winds then.

California voters have approved only a handful of tax increases since 1980, and just once in a special election.

In a November 1993 special ballot, voters approved Prop. 172, a permanent a half-cent increase in the state sales tax to pay for local public safety programs such as police and firefighters. People went to the polls as firefighters battled wind-whipped blazes in the hills above Los Angeles.

“The initiative had a good chance of passing anyway, but there’s no question that TV coverage of the fires played a role in encouraging voters to vote for it,” said Dan Schnur, the chairman of the state Fair Political Practices Commission who was a top aide to then-Gov. Pete Wilson, who backed the increase.

Brown’s budget proposal calls for continuing higher income, sales and vehicle tax increases approved in February 2009 for another five years, generating about $11.1 billion through June 2012 to help close a $25.4 billion shortfall. Under his plan, about $6 billion of the money would go to cities and counties in 2011-12 to pay for services shifted from the state.

Critics contend that Brown’s budget proposal fails to cut enough spending. GOP lawmakers say they will block legislation putting the tax extensions before voters. And even if the measures somehow get on the ballot, they would stand little chance with tax-averse voters, say some lawmakers and others.
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Brown, who pledged during the governor’s race to let people vote on any tax increases, said he hopes to persuade Republicans to support the ballot measures and thinks voters could be receptive. Schools would otherwise face billions in cuts, he said.

“I think there is a significant number of people who have an open mind. And it’ll be up to the Legislature, myself and the business community and citizen groups and parent-teacher associations to make the case,” Brown said last week. “And then whatever the people say, obviously we’ll live with that.”

Since 1980, voters have opposed ballot measures to raise money for parks, schools, emergency medical care and other services.

In a May 2009 special election, voters rejected all but one initiative, including a measure that would have extended tax increases as part of a Capitol budget deal to create a rainy-day reserve.

Inland Southern California Assemblyman Brian Nestande said he thinks a June special election would have a similar outcome.

“I think the public sees that as Sacramento’s problem and ‘you guys deal with it,’ ” Nestande said.


The higher taxes approved in February 2009 imposed a 0.25 percentage point surcharge for each income tax rate. It also lowered the dependent exemption credit from $309 to $99, the same as the personal exemption credit. Both changes disappeared Jan. 1.

The sales tax went up by 1 percentage point and motorists’ vehicle license fee rate increased from 0.65 percent to 1.15 percent. Those increases are scheduled to lift by July 1.

Some say that ballot measures to continue the taxes can succeed.

The 2.1 million-member California Labor Federation led a pro-Brown effort to identify supporters in GOP-leaning places like Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

“One of the key screens we used to identify these folks is to ask them if they would rather see tax cuts or save education,” said federation spokesman Steve Smith. More than half of the people wanted to protect schools, he said.

“That becomes very valuable if in fact a special election does happen and it’s on that question,” he said.

Mark Baldassare, president of the Public Policy Institute of California, said Brown could tap into the same kind of voter sentiment that helped former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger win approval of $15 billion in borrowing early in his first term to balance the budget.

“The more the governor and the Legislature can point to bipartisan support and support from business and labor, the better its chances are,” Baldassare said.

Schwarzenegger and Democratic leaders tried to build the same coalition in 2009. But labor was divided, the conservative tea party movement was on the rise, and the measures failed by double digits.

Mark DiCamillo of the Field Poll said the 2009 measures suffered from Schwarzenegger’s low approval ratings among fellow Republicans. Brown, even though he’s a Democrat, could have better luck, DiCamillo said.

“There’s a certain amount of openness to hearing what they’re being offered,” DiCamillo said. “I don’t expect Republicans to support it. But I don’t suspect they’ll dismiss it out of hand, which is what they did in 2009.”

There are similarities and differences in the 1993 tax-extension special ballot and what Brown proposes for June.

The comments of Prop. 172’s supporters echoed those of Brown and others in recent days. “This is not a new tax or a tax increase,” read proponents’ ballot arguments.


Opponents, led by conservative Republicans, accused supporters of “legislative extortion.” In a newspaper column this week, former state GOP chief Shawn Steel said Brown has “embraced blackmail” by warning of school cuts if voters reject the tax extensions.

The $9.2 billion in continued taxes proposed by Brown dwarf the $1.5 billion in annual revenue generated by Prop. 172.

In addition, the 1993 measure was tied to politically popular local public-safety services.

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