California legislature appears ready to OK special election
June 14, 2011
SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) – A group of Republican senators indicated Monday that they believe California voters should have a chance to vote on tax increases, making a special election to resolve the state’s fiscal mess increasingly likely as the governor and lawmakers intensified negotiations on a budget plan.
The main sticking point is how to fund government operations between the time lawmakers approve a spending plan for the fiscal year that begins July 1 and a special election, which Gov. Jerry Brown has been seeking and wants to hold in September.
“I believe we’ll get there,” said Republican Assemblyman Bill Berryhill of Stockton, when asked about the possibility of the Legislature supporting a special election.
Assembly Democrats were hopeful, but less optimistic.
“This is disingenuous,” said Bob Blumenfield, D-Los Angeles, chairman of the Assembly Budget Committee. “If (Republicans) were serious about an election, they would have had it in June.”
Gov. Jerry Brown and Democratic lawmakers want to extend a series of expiring temporary tax hikes to help close a remaining $9.6 billion deficit, while Republicans want pension reforms and a state spending cap in exchange for their votes. Two Republican votes are needed in each house of the Legislature to reach the two-thirds majority needed to increase taxes or place a measure before voters.
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The Legislature’s deadline to send a balanced budget to Brown is Wednesday, and lawmakers will lose their pay for each day they miss that deadline. Negotiations have picked up in recent days and resemble a game of political chicken, with billions in additional budget cuts at stake.
Brown and legislative Democrats insist that a temporary “bridge” of higher taxes is needed to support education and public safety, and that the governor’s budget plan will not work without it. Higher sales and vehicle taxes dating to 2009 expire at the end of this month unless lawmakers vote to renew them until a special election is held – or even longer.
The group of four GOP senators who would support a public vote on tax extensions said they would only do so if they also can vote on pension reform and a state spending cap.
The also took issue with Brown’s contention that Republicans are obstructing a budget deal with a special election on taxes. The party’s proposals for a spending cap, pension and regulatory reforms are clear and consistent and have been communicated to Democrats, the senators said in a joint statement.
“It is clear now, as it has always been, that the only impediment to resolving this budget crisis and putting the tax question before the voters as the governor has committed to, are the Democrats and their special interest allies,” said the statement by senators Tom Berryhill of Modesto, Anthony Cannella of Ceres, Bill Emmerson of Hemet and Tom Harman of Huntington Beach.
“Governor Brown is right: The voters deserve to vote on taxes, and we believe they deserve to vote for a hard spending cap and meaningful pension reform as well,” the senators said.
Martha Fluor, president of the California School Boards Association, said she is a lifelong Republican but is “really frustrated and angry” with GOP lawmakers for opposing a budget with tax extensions. “This is a matter of representing all in their districts, not just Republicans,” Fluor said.
GOP leaders in the Senate say Republicans will not support extending the expiring taxes. Republicans in the Assembly have not taken a solid position on any of the tax issues.
Assembly Minority Leader Connie Conway, R-Visalia, opposes an extension and said Brown must make more spending cuts before he can build credibility to ask voters for tax hike renewals. But some of those negotiating with Brown indicated they were close to agreement on calling a special election.
“There’s a good possibility, but I don’t have a solid answer for you,” said Assemblyman Katcho Achadjian, R-San Luis Obispo, adding that he is waiting to see how talks in the Senate play out.
On Monday, Brown called on the Legislature to rise above partisan differences and resist pressure from talk shows, bloggers and anti-tax advocates to pass a budget that would close the deficit with temporary taxes and no additional cuts.
“We’ve got to bite the bullet. We’ve got to act as adults, rise above our own little comfort zones – whether it’s from the left or the right or the middle – and get working for California,” Brown said at a news conference where he was flanked by a coalition of business, education and law enforcement leaders.
But he acknowledged that many aspects of a budget deal remain fluid and subject to negotiation, including the length of a tax bridge and whether voters would consider higher taxes on their own or along with pension reforms and a state spending cap.
Both the Senate and Assembly met briefly Monday but did not take up the taxes. A voter-approved initiative taking effect this year will punish lawmakers by halting their pay if they fail to make Wednesday’s deadline for sending a balanced budget to the governor’s desk. The state controller has said any missed salary and per diem payments will not be paid retroactively.
Brown said that if the budget isn’t resolved by Wednesday, work would continue, even if ultimately the higher taxes must be put on the ballot by gathering signatures from the public.
Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg said Democrats will meet the deadline, with or without GOP votes, and the governor could leave the budget unsigned and continue negotiating through June if necessary.
It takes a two-thirds majority in each house to approve taxes or put them on the ballot, so a bridge or special election each need at least two Republican votes in the Assembly and two in the Senate.
Brown and the Democratic majority want the bridge to briefly extend temporary increases in the sales and vehicle taxes until a special election can be called, perhaps as early as September.
Ultimately, Brown wants voters to decide whether the increase to the sales and vehicle taxes should be extended for five years, and an expired increase in the personal income tax rate revived for four years.
Associated Press writer Lien Hoang contributed to this report.