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State of the State speech: Brown to offer few dire details on taxes

State of the State speech: Governor plans to reason with voters over extending taxes.

January 30, 2011|By Anthony York, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Sacramento — Gov. Jerry Brown wants voters' nod to revive billions of dollars in expiring taxes to help balance the state budget, but he has yet to spell out exactly what will happen if lawmakers put the question on the ballot and voters say no.

Anyone expecting to hear such details in Brown's State of the State speech Monday evening may be disappointed: The governor said he had no plans to produce them, opting instead to reprise many of the themes he laid out in his inaugural address and his budget unveiling earlier this month.

He has said generally that schools, health and welfare programs and other state services would have to be cut deeply without the extended taxes. But he appears to believe people cannot be scared into going along with his proposal.

Brown's calculation is causing no shortage of consternation among fellow Democrats. They say threats of a school year shortened by more than a month, big state parks sold to developers and public hospitals mothballed should be part of the governor's balance-the-budget campaign.

Treasurer Bill Lockyer said he would like the governor to be honest about "what the possibilities will be." Senate Budget Committee Chairman Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) is pushing for a precise look at how voters' lives would be affected if the state had to cut $12 billion more from its spending.

Brown acknowledged that his number crunchers have examined that scenario but will not make those findings public.

"It's so horrible that we don't like to release it," he told reporters last week.

Voters were warned of dire consequences a couple of years ago, when they were asked to approve the same tax extension that Brown seeks now. They said no.

Doomsday never arrived, however. Lawmakers did cut services but found a way — largely through borrowing and clever bookkeeping — to limit the pain. They pushed the state's financial problem forward, causing it to grow.

Brown appears to prefer reasoning with Californians instead, building on recent polling data that suggests a majority agrees with his budget outlook and his call to extend income, car and sales taxes that expired recently or will do so this summer. He is avoiding, for now at least, the path that proponents of the last tax push took. Their blueprint for a public services disaster did not keep voters in their corner.

"In my experience, scaring voters does not produce the result that a lot of political consultants think it's going to produce," said Democratic political consultant Darry Sragow. "Rubbing voters' faces in it is a very bad idea."

Sragow says the latest polling suggests that voters grasp that the state has run out of money and they are "desperate for candor and adult leadership…. The voters know we're in a mess; they know if we don't get out things are going to get worse; and they are ready to be led. The problem is that nobody has been willing or able to lead them."

The merits of the threats are no longer the issue, said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC.

"There's only so many times you can cry the sky is falling, because when it doesn't fall, people stop listening," he said.

Brown is already getting more attention through other means, Schnur said, such as taking cellphones from state workers and replacing ornate furniture in his cabinet room with a large picnic table. Such moves "give Brown some credibility to ask for some sacrifices," Schnur said.

"Cut $1 billion out of Medi-Cal and most voters won't notice. Take away some cellphones and make legislators sit on a picnic bench, and they pay attention," he said.

A survey by the Public Policy Institute of California released Wednesday found that 53% of Californians support the governor's tax plan. Larger majorities said they would be willing to raise taxes if the money were used specifically to spare schools, public universities and healthcare programs from further cuts.

Such support could deteriorate if meaningful opposition is organized and millions of dollars are spent on a campaign to block taxes. In addition, the plan could become linked to other proposals as lawmakers try to cobble together a deal to put it on the ballot. In 2009, many voters were so confused by the package the Legislature put before them that they rejected it.

State Republican Party Chairman Ron Nehring said the backing Brown has now is for an abstract budget proposal.

"Regular folks will focus on a tax hike if and when it ever makes it to the ballot," he said in a statement. "When voters do tune in to another big tax hike, they'll exercise the same common sense they did when they rejected [previous] tax hikes."

Nehring says voters should demand that the state instead cut pension benefits, state worker salaries and waste, abuse and other unnecessary spending. Some analysts say that such arguments will resonate with voters unless the governor shows in detail how much more severe the cuts would be without the taxes.

David McCuan, a professor of political science at Sonoma State University, says the odds of a ballot measure passing in a special election — no matter the issue — are always long.

"Only one in three ballot measures pass[es], and the record for special elections is even worse. This is not a recipe for success," he said.

The tactical disagreement even among supporters of the governor's budget shows the tightrope Brown is walking as he continues to make his case.

"The most difficult task for any leader is selling the light at the end of the tunnel," said Schnur. "If you spend too much time talking about the light, you're out of touch. If you spend too much time out of the tunnel, you're bringing people down. Maintaining that balance is going to be the key."

anthony.york@latimes.com

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