By Steven Harmon
Contra Costa Times
Posted: 11/14/2010 12:00:00 AM PST
Updated: 11/14/2010 05:20:30 AM PST
SACRAMENTO — Near the end of his fall campaign for governor, Jerry Brown had to tamp down the fervor building among his supporters, who sensed a big victory, and with it, big changes.
“There’s too much expectation around here,” he told an enthusiastic Sacramento crowd. “We all got to take a deep breath. We don’t want to get too exuberant, because this is real life and real life gets messy.”
Brown may have to enshrine that phrase on his office door once he returns to the Capitol on Tuesday, when he will start hammering out ideas on how to tame next year’s budget with legislators.
“Real life” in the Capitol for Brown begins with a $25.4 billion budget abyss, a scenario even worse than the tough times for which he had braced voters. Brown readily agreed with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s decision to call for a special session to tackle $6 billion in shortfalls for fiscal year 2010-11. The session begins Dec. 6, when new lawmakers are sworn in but before Brown takes office.
The massive deficit may force Brown’s hand earlier than he’d hoped on whether to seek voter approval of tax increases, political observers said. Brown, unlikely to get Republican support, has said he would not raise taxes unless voters approved them.
But progressives may not have the patience to accept further cuts in programs already decimated by three years of austerity without balancing them out with significant tax increases.
“I think he has to (seek tax hikes) immediately,” said Robin Swanson, a Democratic political consultant. “Unless he wants to be the first Democratic governor to come in and make $25 billion in cuts. People elected a new governor for a reason. My hope is he takes a new approach,” other than offering cuts-only budgets.
By vowing that he’d be frugal and tightfisted with taxpayer money, though, Brown may have bought some time to first try to show creative ways to cut down government spending.
“I think it’ll be at least a year before you see him try (to raise taxes),” said Jeff Raimundo, a Democratic political consultant. “He needs to show he’s fighting to control costs. He will be sympathetic to calls for taxes but, politically, I don’t think he can do it. He has to set the stage for a tax increase.”
Brown has already signaled he is unlikely to go to the voters immediately, saying the results of Proposition 21, in which voters turned down an $18 automobile fee hike to benefit parks, showed there is little patience now for new taxes. Voters also turned down a ballot measure to roll back corporate tax breaks, and voted for another to require a two-thirds legislative vote on fee increases.
Key players in Brown’s election are preparing to press the governor-elect and lawmakers to work out a budget that doesn’t place most of the burden on those receiving services.
Bill Lloyd, the president of the state’s largest public employee union, Service Employees International Union, insisted that voters rejected the “tired and shortsighted all-cuts approach” to budgeting by electing Brown.
Everything should be on the table from day one, said Steve Smith, spokesman for the California Labor Federation, “and that would include going to voters with something like (rescinding) corporate tax breaks. We support that. We don’t want to see regressive taxes any more than Republicans. People are struggling. But corporate taxes? Absolutely.”
Brown’s relationship with voters might lend itself to a more aggressive approach, said Adam Mendelsohn, a Republican political consultant who ran Schwarzenegger’s 2009 failed ballot battle to extend temporary taxes.
“Brown has shown himself to be a very adept campaigner,” Mendelsohn said. “Plus, that first year as governor, you can ask a lot. That first year is certainly the year you can tap into a reservoir of support that eventually erodes over the course of your governorship.”
Brown can succeed by making it clear that new revenues would pay for specific areas such as education, and that the tax is targeted to those who can pay for it, said Swanson, the Democratic political consultant.
“The salesmanship is key and I do think Brown is capable of it,” Swanson said. “He comes across as a straight shooter. If he can do it with honesty and integrity, something voters are not accustomed to in recent years, they’d be open to that.”
Still, the combustible combination of a poor economy and an all-time low public approval of the Legislature makes going quickly to voters for taxes a “risky proposition,” said Mark Baldassare, president and CEO of the Public Policy Institute of California.
“It’s a challenging situation to ask voters in this climate,” he said.
The question of timing is important, said Ben Tulchin, a Democratic pollster. If Brown were to ask for tax hikes in 2011, he’d be putting the question to a smaller group of voters who are more conservative than those who showed up Nov. 2. Asking voters in 2012 would stand a much better chance, given the stronger Democratic turnout in a presidential election year.
“What good does it do to spend time and political energy on a measure when chances to succeed are less than 50 percent?” Tulchin said. “You have to be cautious, smart and strategic if you’re Brown. You don’t want to step on a land mine in your first six months. It can really set you back.”
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