By Kevin Yamamura
Published: Friday, May. 13, 2011 – 12:00 am | Page 3A

Gov. Jerry Brown set the stage for this budget fight more than a year ago.

The Democratic governor launched his campaign in March 2010 on a promise he would not raise taxes without a vote of the people. It was a way to disarm GOP attacks on taxes while embracing the popular notion of allowing voters to resolve the budget.

The idea remains popular among the electorate, but it has complicated Brown’s path toward a balanced budget as each month goes by without an election in place.

The specter of a public ratification has made it difficult for schools and others who rely on the state budget to prepare for the coming fiscal year. It also raises the possibility that lawmakers would have to revisit the budget this fall or winter should voters reject taxes at the ballot, possibly delaying state payments and normal borrowing procedures.

“Hindsight is always 20/20,” said Adam Mendelsohn, an adviser to former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. “At the time, the pledge was very smart. It was an election that was really dominated across the country by fiscal conservatives.”

Already, major unions that support Democratic campaigns have come out against the ballot idea after offering tepid support earlier this year. Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez, D-Los Angeles, has also suggested that Brown pursue taxes without a public vote.

Brown hasn’t budged. When he releases his revised proposal Monday, he is expected to continue to push for the tax extensions as a longer-term solution, despite increased revenues that are projected for the coming year. He has framed the budget dispute as a decision too significant for lawmakers to decide.

“It’s a question of who’s sovereign in this country and in this state,” Brown said last month. “It’s ‘We the People.’ In fact, California says in the initiative part of the constitution (that) ultimate legislative responsibility rests with the people of California. And I’ll take my case to them, and whatever they say, we’re going to go along with.”

The governor asked lawmakers for a special election in June, but that idea fell through when Brown and Republicans could not reach a compromise to place taxes on the ballot.

The pledge has shaped negotiations. It led to a multistage budget approach because Brown had to push hard through March if he had any hope for a June special election.

With the June idea gone, Brown is weighing the notion of asking Republicans to extend higher taxes on sales and income temporarily until an election in September or later. The governor seems insistent on adhering to his promise even as his allies pull away.

“The governor has an intellectually honest approach, but his commitment to allow people to speak is being used as leverage against the Democrats,” said Democratic consultant Chris Lehane. “Republicans are able to use the governor’s pledge as a way to gain greater negotiating power. They get to keep ratcheting up what they’re asking for because they know the governor has committed to a public vote.”

Lehane said that will continue until Democrats can exert enough pressure on Republicans to counter the efforts of anti-tax advocates.

Some Democratic strategists suggested Brown could reasonably explain that he wanted voters to decide the tax issue but that Republicans blocked his efforts.

“I mean, he would basically say the truth, that they wouldn’t give me the two-thirds vote to put it on the ballot,” said Democratic strategist Bill Carrick.

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