Wyatt Buchanan, Chronicle Sacramento Bureau
San Francisco Chronicle
Thursday, January 13, 2011

(01-13) 04:00 PST Sacramento – —

Cutting various state programs as proposed this week by Gov. Jerry Brown could prove more difficult than anticipated after the Legislative Analyst’s Office said Wednesday that it might take a two-thirds vote of the Legislature to approve the cuts.

The news comes less than three months after voters approved Proposition 25, which lowered the requirement to pass a budget to a simple majority.

Yet that measure might not be as useful as many backers once hoped, because the cuts, which affect programs ranging from welfare to higher education, have been proposed in a way that might require the two-thirds vote.

Both the Assembly and state Senate are two Democrats short of a two-thirds majority, with 52 Democrats in the Assembly and 24 in the Senate. And recent budgets have won narrow approval when some Democrats refused to support cuts.

At the least, the two-thirds requirement to approve the cuts could pose a problem for Brown’s desire to approve them in March.

Mac Taylor, the legislative analyst, said Brown’s plan is “a very good starting point” for lawmakers to begin deliberations on how to close a $25.4 billion deficit over the next 18 months, though he said the ambitious proposal faces a number of challenges and that parts of it have yet to be fully explained by the administration.

“There’s clearly a lot of work that still needs to be done,” Taylor said. Budget committees in the Senate and Assembly will begin considering Brown’s proposal in hearings at the Capitol today.

Special election

When he announced his plan Monday, Brown said he wanted the Legislature to pass bills to approve spending cuts prior to a special election on extending billions of dollars in taxes. Such an election could happen in June.

Passage of the final state budget would occur after such an election, the governor said.

It is that unusual plan that could run into trouble with how Prop. 25 was written. Spending cuts can be made only if the Legislature approves various changes to state laws. But Prop. 25 said such law changes could happen with a majority vote only after a complete budget plan is approved. If, as Brown has proposed, the budget is passed later, Prop. 25’s majority-vote provisions might not apply.

Taylor said lawmakers could possibly find a legal maneuver to proceed with a simple majority.

“We’re not trying to say it can’t be done, that’s just our initial literal reading of it,” he said.

H.D. Palmer, spokesman for the California Department of Finance, said the administration had planned to seek a two-thirds vote of approval on all pieces of the budget. Taylor’s analysis does not change how the administration plans to proceed, he said.

“That’s been our plan from the get-go,” Palmer said.

Republicans in the Legislature said Democrats might find a legal maneuver to get the cuts passed with a simple majority. However, they said that could lead to court challenges.

“The more creative you get, the more problematic it becomes because you tend to leave yourself open for litigation,” said Sen. Bob Huff of Diamond Bar (Los Angeles County), the vice chairman of the Senate budget committee.

Extending taxes

The legislative analyst had other critiques of the budget, saying it contains a number of risks when it comes to how much the cuts would actually save. It is also risky to expect voters to approve extending various tax increases that were imposed as part of the February 2009 budget deal.

Voters rejected a shorter extension of the tax increases in a May 2009 special election.

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