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Gov. Jerry Brown's prophecy isn't pretty

If the Legislature does not put his tax extension plan on the ballot, the governor says, the result will be 'a war of all against all.'

March 10, 2011|George Skelton | Capitol Journal

from sacramento — Gov. Jerry Brown has a scenario for what happens if Republicans refuse to place his tax proposal on a June ballot: California becomes Armageddon.

That's my word, not his. His characterization is uttered first in Latin, then translated: "It'll be a war of all against all."

Events will unfold like this, he predicts without hesitation, if the Legislature fails to muster the required two-thirds majority vote — including at least two Republicans in each house — to place a measure on the ballot to extend temporary income, vehicle and sales tax rates for five years:

"I put up an all-cuts budget" — a spending plan that closes the $26.5-billion deficit entirely with program cuts.

Democrats already have all but agreed to $12.6 billion in cuts and want to match that with $12 billion in taxes. Another $3 billion would come from internal borrowing, leaving a $1-billion surplus.

"Then the Democrats change [the all-cuts budget] and put in gimmicks. Then I veto it. Then everybody sits there until we run out of money. It's not going to be a pretty sight. It's like one-two: No tax, all cuts, gimmicky budget, veto, paralysis."

Then political interests and ideologues launch an all-out war of ballot initiatives, he forecasts.

"There'll be initiatives on taxing wine and beer and oil companies," he says, "and a split roll" — taxing commercial real estate higher than residential. "And Republicans will counterattack" with anti-union measures and efforts to undermine the public sector.

"There'll be an unleashing of left and right forces. Everyone will come out fighting. California will become a battleground…. It'll be a war of all against all. The loser will be the people of California."

Brown's not always right, but he does have a record of being prophetic. He was preaching about an "era of limits" 35 years ago when nobody wanted to listen. He was dubbed Gov. Moonbeam for proposing that California possess its own communications satellite. Imagine such a thing!

As the governor is laying out his doomsday scenario, sirens are fittingly blaring outside and he is digging into a salad that features broccoli. His wife and consigliere — Anne Gust Brown — is fixing, serving and also conversing. We're seated on benches at a long, very nice picnic table in their rented upscale loft on a busy street six blocks from the Capitol.

The well-mannered First Dog, a Pembroke Welsh corgi named Sutter, is quietly sitting at my feet, apparently waiting for me to drop any part of a turkey and cheese sandwich.

A large window looks out at Memorial Auditorium, the site of Brown's inauguration. The loft is around 1,400 square feet, with a high ceiling, concrete floors, a big throw rug and a corner makeshift office that contains a small table and computer. "I've been packing that since Secretary of State," Brown says, referring to the table and the office he held 40 years ago.

On this day, Tuesday, Brown has just come from meeting with the Republican Five, a courageous group of GOP senators willing to publicly admit that they're negotiating with the Democratic governor.

Only the day before, the five had declared in a publicized letter to Brown that they had reached an impasse with him. They had proposed reforms in state spending, public pensions, business regulations and taxes in an implied offer to trade those concessions for votes on a tax election. But they had concluded that public employee unions had blocked him from producing those reforms, the letter implied.

Many around the Capitol figured that had blown up the negotiations. Not hardly. The five Republicans apparently just wanted to declare for the record that they are willing to negotiate and are trying to drive a hard bargain, one serving GOP interests.

They were back at the bargaining table the next morning after Brown called each one personally. None returned the governor's call — not wanting to deal separately — but all agreed to meet together with him.

"We appreciate the governor's willingness to approach us and ask for our ideas," says Sen. Bill Emmerson of Redlands, one of the five. "Gov. Brown has reached out to us much more than Gov. Schwarzenegger ever did."

Emmerson is an old-school, pragmatic pol who believes in compromising to solve problems. He was a legislative staffer back when Ronald Reagan was governor and Brown was secretary of state. Emmerson's wife worked for Brown then.

The other four Republicans willing to negotiate are Sens. Tom Berryhill of Modesto, Sam Blakeslee of San Luis Obispo, Anthony Cannella of Ceres and Tom Harman of Huntington Beach.

But Brown seems frustrated.

"Their offer is to completely change the pension system, completely change the regulatory system, completely change the budget system … just to let the people vote. Those are difficult changes to make in a week.

"If they try to push the Democrats too far, the Democrats will come unglued."

How far is he willing to go? On retirements, the hottest issue, Brown doesn't seem willing to adopt a "hybrid" system that includes smaller pensions combined with a 401(k) plan. The Republican Five proposed that.

But the governor would support limiting the maximum amount of pensions and also the salary upon which pensions are calculated. He'd favor barring the purchase of "air time" (service years not actually worked.) And he'd "do something about local pensions, which are worse."

Schwarzenegger and the Legislature already took several steps toward pension reform last year.

"Some Republicans want paralysis," Brown asserts. "They want to blow it up. They're in a minority, but they're very vociferous. They'd like to see government implode. That's where we're headed. I'm trying to pull us back from the brink."

Fortunately so apparently are five Republicans.

george.skelton@latimes.com

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