Governor-elect Jerry Brown leads a bipartisan meeting in Sacramento on… (Justin Sullivan / Getty…)
Reporting from Sacramento — California voters could be presented with a tough choice by summer under a proposal that Gov.-elect Jerry Brown is considering: Approve new taxes or other revenue in a special election, or live with far fewer government services.
Brown is holding talks with small groups of lawmakers and influential interest groups about how to put that decision before the public. He won't discuss his plans publicly, but people involved in the private discussions expect him to propose a special election after enacting a dire austerity budget in the spring.
State Senate minority leader Bob Dutton (R-Rancho Cucamonga), who met with Brown this week, said the governor-elect told Republican senators he wants to "rip the Band-Aid off next year" and hinted that a special election was part of the plan.
"He intimated strongly that he wanted to go to the ballot but did not say so explicitly," Dutton said.
The discussions are the first indication of how Brown may be planning to address the state's budget deficit, which he has identified as his immediate priority. By law, he must propose a balanced budget by Jan. 10, and he vowed while campaigning not to raise taxes without voters' OK.
Bipartisan support would be required in the Legislature to place a budget measure on the ballot. Republicans may go along, Dutton said, if a revenue hike were proposed alongside meaningful changes in the budget process.
"If you were talking about a complete structural reform that could not be changed, then yeah, we'd be happy to work with" the Brown administration, Dutton said.
Senate Budget Committee Chairman Mark Leno (D- San Francisco), who said he has had informal discussions with Brown, said a special election "would have to be next June," in time for the fiscal year that starts July 1.
"We are looking at a $25-billion deficit," Leno said. "Voters need to understand what damage would be done if it were resolved with cuts alone."
A summer election would require the Legislature to pass a budget by about March, Leno said — months before lawmakers typically reach a consensus on spending.
That plan would probably be marked by extreme austerity measures that voters would have to live with if they did not approve a tax increase or some other way of raising revenue, Leno said.
Brown hosted a public budget forum with state and local lawmakers Wednesday but made it clear that he was not ready to talk about specific proposals to close the budget gap.
"Today, we're not going to argue about solutions," Brown said.
But during the campaign, Brown talked openly about asking voters to help fix the state's budget problems.
"Anything you do, whether you cut or seek revenue, is going to require a vote of the people, and that's really my plan," he told CNBC in June. "The governor's main job is not just to have a few good ideas, but to lead a process whereby the people have teed up for them some key decisions about what we're going to do less, and what we're going to do different, or if we want to pay for some more money."
Brown has been conferring with advisors who specialize in campaigns and elections. Last week, he and his wife, Anne Gust, were spotted huddling with a team of advisors in a private room in a downtown Sacramento restaurant. Among those in attendance were pollster Jim Moore, campaign strategist David Townsend and Republican consultant Jack Flanigan — tacticians who could help him with a ballot strategy.
If Brown calls for a special election in 2011, selling a tax plan to voters could be a major challenge.
In 2009, the Legislature and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger placed six budget-related measures on a special-election ballot. They included extending temporary tax hikes as well as proposed limits on future state spending. Voters overwhelmingly rejected them.
"The public is very, very skeptical of anything Sacramento does," said Adam Mendelsohn, an adviser to Schwarzenegger who worked on the 2009 special-election campaign. "One of the things that was so apparent after the 2009 election was how difficult it was to go out and get the public to endorse a plan created by Sacramento to help Sacramento…. There's very much a sense of, 'It's your problem, figure out how to solve it. Don't ask us to do your job.'"
Kevin Gordon, a political adviser to education groups, said Wednesday's budget forum was Brown's first step in "taking the public's temperature."
At the forum, the governor-elect summoned fiscal experts to outline the state's financial problems. They warned of skyrocketing debt and chronic budget shortfalls. State Controller John Chiang brought one of the few moments of levity, comparing himself and his fiscal colleagues to the "four horsemen of the Apocalypse."
Brown noted that the budget shortfall, projected over the next 18 months, is larger than annual state spending on prisons, welfare and the University of California and California State University systems combined.
"What we're looking at today is much worse than it's ever been before," Brown said.
Still, he struck an upbeat note. He said there exists "a zone of potential common agreement, and that's where I'm going to focus in the coming months."
Times staff writer Shane Goldmacher contributed to this report.