By Kevin Yamamura
kyamamura@sacbee.com
Published: Sunday, Sep. 11, 2011 – 12:00 am | Page 1A

Twice this year on the precipice of a legislative deadline, Gov. Jerry Brown trotted out a rare coalition of special-interest foes in his presumed march toward a bipartisan tax victory.

Twice, that victory eluded him in the Legislature.

If the Democratic governor learned anything this year, it’s that obtaining supermajority tax votes is every bit as difficult as veterans of recent Capitol battles warned.

Brown staked his claim in the final month on a $1 billion package that would have raised taxes on out-of-state companies like Detroit automakers and cigarette-maker Altria Group in order to sprinkle small tax breaks among California businesses and individuals.

On the eve of Friday’s legislative deadline, the governor celebrated an accord with two Assembly Republicans in a Capitol news conference. Labor and small-business leaders flanked Brown and Democratic lawmakers. He acknowledged it was half a deal, absent Senate support, but noted, “We celebrate small victories.”

Less than 36 hours later, it went from small to none.

The Senate blocked Brown’s tax plan as four Democrats withheld support and all but one Republican voted no on Senate Bill 116. It marked another stinging fiscal defeat for Brown, who spent the first half of the year courting Senate Republicans to no avail on his budget package.

In a terse statement just before midnight Friday, the governor said, “It’s unbelievable that so many politicians in Sacramento would choose to protect cigarette makers and out-of-state corporations to the detriment of California jobs.”

Unfazed, lawmakers soon after rejected another Brown big-ticket item, an eight-year, $3.2 billion extension of a tax on private utility customers. The proposal would have cost residential users roughly $1 to $2 per month to pay for clean technology research and energy-efficiency programs. Brown characterized it as a pillar of his job creation efforts, along with his corporate tax change.

In an environment where tax has become a dirty word, Brown’s mission was never easy. The governor has blamed Republicans for being obstinate, even suggesting at a recent conference in Las Vegas that “it’s a product of this notion that taxes are like some kind of a sexually transmitted disease, and government is all the problem.”

But Brown could not muster sufficient support even from his own party Friday, and his late-night rebuke notably did not single out Republicans.

Legislative opponents in both parties complained that the governor had jammed them with eleventh-hour proposals, a common refrain on final nights of legislative session in which the public has scant opportunity to read last-minute bill language.

Legislative backers conceded that the $1 billion tax plan was imperfect, though they were motivated to close a tax break for out-of-state companies. Democrats wanted money to go toward schools and government services rather than taxpayers. Some Republicans wanted wider tax relief, while others said that raising a tax on anyone, even companies based elsewhere, is harmful.

“This isn’t good,” said Sen. Bob Huff, R-Diamond Bar, who complained Democrats were rushing the package in the final hours. “You’ve got garbage wrapped up in some nice fruit around the outside, and you package it up and all you smell is the fruit.”

Despite Brown’s defeats, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, called the session “one of the most productive sessions the Legislature has had in years.”

He lamented, however, the failure of the tax plan and energy surcharge bills as “both very unfortunate outcomes.”

“The message could not be any clearer,” Steinberg said. “The majority party going forward has to plan its agenda in ways that don’t depend on the two-thirds vote.”

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