Several major Republican priorities were within reach as four GOP lawmakers negotiated on Gov. Jerry Brown’s budget plan. When talks broke down, they lost a rare window of opportunity.

California Gov. Jerry Brown speaks to reporters March 24 after signing bills to cut billions from California’s budget. Talks with Republicans to seek votes for his budget plan crumbled Tuesday night. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images / March 24, 2011)

By Evan Halper and Michael J. Mishak, Los Angeles Times
March 31, 2011

Reporting from Sacramento — After years of sitting on the bench, watching much of the state’s business being conducted with little regard for their input, California Republicans in recent months had an opportunity to share the reins of government.

Now, that appears to be gone.

The Democratic governor and legislative leaders offered the GOP a rare chance to shape key policies — and mitigate several that were forged on the other side of the aisle over more than a decade. GOP legislation was suddenly on the front burner. Rolling back government employee pensions, easing regulations on business, limiting the growth of government all seemed within reach.

The price for this potential bounty was four votes, the ones Gov. Jerry Brown needed to place a tax measure before voters. Not an endorsement of more taxes, just a vote to let voters decide the matter.

Today, after the collapse of those negotiations, many in the Capitol are asking whether, in declining to provide those four “ayes,” the Republicans have cemented their fate as a dying minority party in this largely Democratic state.

“These opportunities don’t come up too much in Sacramento,” said Bill Whalen, a GOP political consultant who was an advisor to former Gov. Pete Wilson.

“If I’m the Republicans … I would argue for a minimalist approach,” he said. “Be able to declare victory and retreat. … That should have been part of the calculus.”

Brown’s calculations also came up short. The veteran policymaker had expressed confidence since taking office in January that he could scrape together enough support for his ballot plan. He apparently misjudged the cost of even the most limited GOP sponsorship.

He also may have underestimated how little ground he could give before Democrats would squawk and threaten to withdraw their support. Budget talks were not shackled by such intense partisanship when Brown negotiated his last state spending plan three decades ago.

Duf Sundheim, a moderate Republican and former state party chair, said the breakdown of negotiations “hurts everybody. … It doesn’t help Republicans. It doesn’t help Jerry Brown. It doesn’t help Democrats. It’s why people are so disgusted with the process.”

The Republicans say they walked away from the negotiating table when it became clear the governor was willing to go only so far. In the rush to negotiate sweeping policy changes under a crushing deadline, they began to fear that the concessions on offer could be rolled back later or would not be as far-reaching as they wanted.

In a puzzling eleventh-hour shift, they lifted the veil of secrecy on the talks and released the sprawling list of GOP demands that had been brought to the negotiating table. It spilled over seven pages and veered into such topics as when the state should hold its presidential primary. It included the continuation of billions of dollars in corporate subsidies and tax breaks that Brown wants to eliminate to balance the budget.

The public move appeared intended to show that Republicans were being serious and reasonable. But the Brown administration seized on the GOP document to make the opposite case.

In addition, the pressure from anti-tax activists on the GOP not to cut a deal was so intense that only a handful of the Legislature’s 41 Republicans would even engage with the governor.

“One could easily picture the political attacks that would have followed, even if those Republicans won big, substantial concessions,” said GOP political analyst Jack Pitney. “A lot of activists would have accused them of selling their birthright for a mess of pottage.”

The collapse of talks was a major victory for the activist core of the party, including the bloggers and talk radio hosts who make it their mission to keep GOP lawmakers from drifting toward the political middle.

“No Budget Deal is Much Better Than A Bad Budget Deal,” trumpeted a headline on the Flash Report, the sacred online text for party activists. “There is NO public policy trade off that makes it okay to then vote to place taxes onto a special election ballot,” the article said.

It referred to the five GOP Senate Republicans who had been involved in budget negotiations with the governor as the “Rogue 5.”

As hardliners have tightened their grip on California’s Republican Party, it has continued to lose ground. The GOP has no statewide officeholders and a thin bench.

Last year, as Republicans swept statehouses across the nation, in California the party lost the two statewide offices it held and a legislative seat it had held for two decades. The highest state office Republicans now hold in California is on the Board of Equalization.

Less than a third of California voters, 30.9%, are registered Republicans, down from 39% two decades ago. And when Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s star power offered the party a bridge to wider acceptance, officials irked by his failure to hew to their conservative platform worked to diminish his clout.

If Republicans had forged a deal with Brown, it might have been the foundation of an enduring partnership. Now, the centrist governor who was open to some of the Republican agenda could be pulled to the left.

To read entire story, click here.