Wyatt Buchanan, Chronicle Sacramento Bureau
San Francisco Chronicle
Monday, June 27, 2011

Sacramento — Gov. Jerry Brown has spent the first six months since taking office focused on solving California’s chronic budget deficit, and this week his efforts – and his campaign pledge to avoid accounting gimmicks – will face perhaps their toughest test as the new fiscal year begins Friday.

Democrats in the Legislature have been meeting with the governor, eager to put a budget in place so they can get paid. Controller John Chiang halted the Legislature’s pay last week, saying lawmakers failed to pass a balanced budget by the constitutional June 15 deadline.

The governor has been unable to persuade four Republican lawmakers to support his budget plan to hold a special election on tax measures to close the state’s remaining $9.6 billion deficit. He is expected to offer an alternative to the plan, presumably deeper cuts, but further cuts to state services would be a hard, if not impossible, sell in the Democratic-controlled state Legislature.

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a policy and politics fellow at the University of Southern California and a veteran observer of California politics, said Brown miscalculated how difficult it would be to get a compromise with Republicans and that his experiences from his first two terms as governor three decades ago aren’t helping him now.

Politics changed

“It’s a very different California, a very different Sacramento and a very different state Capitol,” she said. “He basically got stopped in his tracks.”

Dan Schnur, a former Republican strategist who now directs the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC, said the governor has two options: put together a package that will attract Republican votes or approve a budget “that isn’t really balanced but would not be as egregious as the one he vetoed.”

If he does the latter, “The best thing for him to tell voters is, ‘I’m going to keep my promise, but it’s going to take two years, not just one,’ ” Schnur said.

Brown already has vetoed one state budget – the first such veto in state history – because he said it contained too many gimmicks and pushed the deficit off to future years.

Push for tax extension

All along, Brown has argued for the taxes that were increased as part of the 2009 budget deal to be extended for five years. But if they expire as they are set to do Friday – and if he gets the election he wants – he will have to persuade voters to raise taxes instead of extend taxes.

Hopes for a breakthrough between the governor and Republicans seemed to grow bleaker after Republican senators held a press conference in front of the governor’s office late last week to say that Brown was not being forthright about what is holding up a budget deal.

The Democratic governor has said Republicans are balking over extending the current tax rates until voters have a chance to weigh in, but Republicans said the real issue is the governor would not agree to their demands on public employee pensions.

Still, Brown is remaining publicly hopeful about his plan while remaining mostly quiet about any alternatives. In San Francisco on Thursday, Brown told reporters he might go around the Republicans in the Legislature. “I can only get (taxes) now, within the next few weeks – if I can get four Republican votes – otherwise we’ll have to go to initiative and it will take us a better part of a year,” he said.

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