By David Siders
dsiders@sacbee.com
Published: Sunday, Mar. 11, 2012 – 2:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Sunday, Mar. 11, 2012 – 9:49 am

Last year, for all his wine and conversation, it was Republican lawmakers Gov. Jerry Brown couldn’t budge on tax increases.

This year, it is Democratic interests he is failing to control.

Despite visiting with labor union leaders from Sacramento and Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., the Democratic governor has been unable to persuade supporters of two rival tax measures to abandon them so that his own initiative to raise taxes might succeed.

He still wants to discuss it, but acknowledges he sees no sign that the proponents of those measures will back down. “Talking to some of these other people,” he complained last week, “I don’t find an appetite for inquiry.”

Brown was cautioned when he took office last year that the Capitol had become more fractious than when he was governor before.

“Sweet reason and persuasion,” said Jack Pitney, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College, “don’t carry much weight in Sacramento.”

But if the limitations of diplomacy are by now evident to Brown, he keeps talking.

Typical was a meeting recently with Joshua Pechthalt, president of the California Federation of Teachers, which is proposing a tax on millionaires.

“I went to the CFT man’s house, spent two hours there,” Brown told The Bee’s editorial board last week in one of a series of meetings with newspapers across the state. “Helped his daughter with her homework.”

The effort is reminiscent of last year, when Brown visited Republicans at their parties and invited them to his loft.

To persuade the teachers union and civil rights attorney Molly Munger, the proponent of another initiative, to scram, Brown is recruiting many of the same labor, law enforcement and business groups that supported him before. Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, among others, has asked the teachers and Munger to withdraw.

“We’re talking to people,” Brown said. “I’m going to do everything I can to alert people that this is a very important matter.”

But even Brown is less sure of his abilities than he was one year ago.

“There’s a reason why the government’s been screwed up for so long in California, and there’s a reason why it’s so screwed up in Washington,” he said. “It’s more complex, and the forces are divided, and there’s no adults that come into a room like this and say, ‘How do we work it out?’ ”

The stakes are high for Brown. His November ballot initiative to raise the state sales tax and income taxes on California’s highest earners is a central part of his effort to forestall further spending cuts and to balance a state budget deficit he estimates at $9.2 billion.

Steinberg said it “scares the heck out of me” that if the other tax measures remain on the ballot, Brown’s might fail. For Brown, he said, it’s a “tough time” to be governor.

“In some ways the system is designed, especially in the modern era, it invites a lot of chaos,” he said. “It’s a little bit of direct democracy run wild.”

Like Steinberg, Brown fears the proposed tax on millionaires, should it appear on the same ballot, would split the pro-tax vote, leaving both that measure and his to fail.

The tax on millionaires, because it is more popular than Brown’s, is likely to be more problematic for Brown than Munger’s less popular income tax initiative, should all three qualify for the ballot. But in the interim, Brown may have more leverage with the teachers union, an interest group, than with Munger, a Pasadena Democrat with no apparent portfolio of other interests to negotiate.

“It’s the same formula,” said Bill Whalen, a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and former speechwriter for ex-Gov. Pete Wilson. “There is one stumbling block between the governor and what he wants to achieve. Last year it was legislative Republicans, and this year it’s Molly Munger.”

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