Area lawmakers say no to special election
Wendy Leung, Staff Writer
Created: 02/28/2011 08:39:44 PM PST

The question of whether voters in June will help decide how to fill the gaping budget deficit could depend on how many Republican legislators Gov. Jerry Brown can convince in the next week.

Brown has given lawmakers a March 10 deadline to call a June special election during which voters would be asked to extend increases passed two years ago to the personal income, sales and vehicle taxes.

If he cannot get sufficient Republican support to call the election, the Democratic governor has said the alternative is deep spending cuts to close the $26.6 billion shortfall. The Legislative Analyst’s Office said that could mean cutting public safety and welfare programs, increasing college tuition and class sizes in kindergarten through third grade, reducing the school year and cutting state employees’ pay.

Many Republicans are holding their ground, saying any kind of a tax increase would ruin the state.

Assemblyman Mike Morrell, the freshman Republican from Rancho Cucamonga, said there isn’t a single concession the governor can make that would lead to his support of a ballot measure extending the tax increases.

“I was thinking of all the taxes we have to pay – utilities, cell phones, even my dog has to pay taxes on his dog tags,” Morrell said. “It’s very dangerous to suggest raising taxes.”

Morrell, a longtime Upland businessman, is among the 30 of the Legislature’s 42 Republicans who pledged not to back any tax hikes to balance the state’s budget.

It’s not clear whether any Republican lawmakers are willing to vote independently to support a ballot measure and, if so, what they would want in return.

Morrell said his Republican colleagues in the Assembly have all expressed opposition to the special election.

“I don’t know anyone well enough to say if they say what they mean or mean what they say,” Morrell said. “I hope they keep their word.”

Among more than a dozen Republicans who commented in recent days, only one – Sen. Bob Huff, R-Walnut – thought Brown has a chance to win some support from Republicans in moderate districts if he agreed to enough governmental reforms.

“There is a long list of things that, if enacted, could possibly lead to votes to do it, knowing that that would fix the long-term problem,” Huff said. “Who those are, I can’t tell you. We all have our districts we have to represent. There’s different thresholds of pressure that exist.”

Huff, the vice chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, doubted any deal would be possible by March 10. Brown set that date as the deadline for legislative action, but it is unclear how long lawmakers could delay and still hold a special election in June.

Last week, Brown appeared before the legislative conference committee – an extremely unusual move for a governor – to debate ideas and implore Republicans to make him an offer that would persuade them to support the ballot measure.

“Give me some ideas. And if you have some reforms you want to make, some things that Democrats don’t like, let’s hear what they are,” Brown said.

Morrell said there are hundreds of oversight committees and boards that can be consolidated in Sacramento.

“We’re spending billions on a whole lot of administrative jobs,” Morrell said. “We have almost 33,000 employees. The majority are suit-and- tie guys. There’s a lot we can cut.”

When asked if it was a scary prospect that Brown could cut public safety and further slash education if the tax increases were not extended, Morrell gave a resounding “No.”

“We’re about $28 billion over. We can live within that,” he said. “I would not up our taxes. Our poor citizens already pay enough taxes right where they are.”

In interviews, Republicans said they want to ease regulations on businesses, cut the size of the state work force and cap state spending to allow only enough of an annual increase to keep pace with inflation and population growth. They also seek long-term pension reforms as the state faces $115 billion in unfunded pension liabilities.

Yet even agreements in those areas would not be enough to win Republican votes for putting tax extensions before voters, said Senate Minority Leader Bob Dutton, R-Rancho Cucamonga.

Assemblyman Paul Cook, R-Yucaipa, is hoping for pension reform, a spending cap and a multiyear budget plan. But Cook said he hasn’t seen any concessions that make him want to back another ballot measure.

“I haven’t seen anything that’s illuminating or different than what the voters rejected before,” Cook said. “I don’t trust the politicians of Sacramento.”

Cook said what he fears most as the governor tries to wrestle the massive deficit is a last-minute deal.

“I don’t want one of those middle- of-the-night scenarios again. I want 24-hour notice on this,” Cook said. “For something that’s going to cost taxpayers billions, I want to study it.”

The Legislature passed the temporary tax hikes in 2009 and scheduled them to expire this year.

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