By Kevin Yamamura
kyamamura@sacbee.com
Published: Sunday, Mar. 6, 2011 – 12:00 am | Page 1A

California Republican leaders are urging their lawmakers to stand firm against Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposal for a June tax election in the name of rebuilding their party.

Beaten badly at the polls in November and holding barely a third of legislative seats, the GOP now finds itself divided over whether to make a deal with the Democratic governor.

Brown needs agreement from at least two Republicans in each house to ask voters to extend 2009 increases to sales, income and vehicle taxes.

The governor is clearly in a dealing mood.

Brown acknowledged Friday that he has met privately with a handful of Republicans in recent days. It’s not yet clear they are ready to vote for the tax extensions or that Democrats are willing to give enough to satisfy their wishes.

But to Jon Fleischman, a California Republican Party vice chairman who runs the conservative FlashReport blog, nothing less than the future of the GOP is at stake. Only 31 percent of state voters were registered Republicans as of last October, compared with 44 percent registered as Democrats.

“The bottom line is, if the minority party wants to become the majority party, the first thing we have to do is act together as a team and unite around certain concepts,” Fleischman said. “Frankly, if we can’t unite around the idea that a massive tax increase in the midst of a recession is going to hurt jobs, we’re never going to unite.”

Besides, Fleischman wrote on his blog this week, “No one I know wants to divert enthusiasm, energy and resources away from 2012 (elections) to engage in (a) June battle against higher taxes, a battle in which Republicans and tax fighters would be outspent by 40 or 50 to 1.”

Some in GOP perplexed

Republicans believe that rejecting taxes will force Democratic constituencies to splinter as labor unions and social service advocates fight for a smaller budget pie.

Brown pledged last month that he would demand an all-cuts budget if voters or lawmakers block the tax extensions. That likely would require major reductions to K-12 schools, community colleges and prisons, based on a Legislative Analyst’s Office review.

“As long as government is expanding, they don’t have to make difficult choices because everyone who sits around their table gets more and more money,” said Ron Nehring, California Republican Party chairman. “When tax hikes come off the table, Democrats have to make difficult choices.”

Thirty of 42 GOP lawmakers organized a “Taxpayers Caucus” last month and vowed to oppose Brown’s proposal, and conservative activists have rebuked the 12 who did not sign on.

The strategy has other Republicans scratching their heads.

“I think even from the most conservative fiscal perspective, they should explore what the governor and Democrats are willing to concede,” said Rob Stutzman, a Republican strategist who advised Brown’s gubernatorial opponent, Meg Whitman. “They have more leverage than they’ve had at any time arguably over the last decades.”

Republicans such as Stutzman see Brown’s pledge to put any taxes on the ballot as a perfect opportunity for Republicans.

“It’s leverage fabricated out of a campaign promise enforced by a Democratic governor,” he said. “It’s such an amazing amount of good luck and good fortune that’s not being explored, that to me it’s just astounding.”

He suggests Republicans ask for a laundry list of long-sought changes: pension reductions, a cap on future state spending, fewer civil service protections and softer regulations on businesses.

Steinberg open to talks

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, said Democrats are open to discussing many of those ideas, including pensions and a spending restraint. “That’s a legitimate discussion to have,” he said. “The challenge, of course, is going from the general to the specific, but that’s what discussion and negotiation are all about.”

Sen. Tony Strickland, R-Moorpark, who leads the “Taxpayers Caucus,” said he supports the long-term changes but believes they shouldn’t be part of a negotiation for tax extensions. “That’s like cutting off your arm to reattach your toe,” he said.

Former Assemblyman Roger Niello, who voted for taxes in the 2009 budget, lost a GOP Senate primary against Sen. Ted Gaines, R-Roseville, who did not vote for the tax deal.

It’s difficult to say how much a vote to place tax extensions on the ballot would cost individual GOP lawmakers. But that uncertainty – especially in light of election changes next year that include independently drawn districts and a new primary system – has lawmakers on edge.

Niello urges broader view

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