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Brown looks at ways to put tax measure on ballot without GOP votes

The governor says he's still 'negotiating in good faith' with Republican lawmakers, but he's also sharpening his rhetoric and exploring ways to get his tax-hike extensions on the ballot in spite of their opposition.

March 23, 2011|By Anthony York, Los Angeles Times
  • Gov. Jerry Brown has toughened his rhetoric as a deadline to get his tax proposal on the ballot draws near. We will vote no matter what anybody says across the street, he said Monday, referring to GOP lawmakers.
Gov. Jerry Brown has toughened his rhetoric as a deadline to get his tax proposal… (Associated Press )

Reporting from Sacramento -- Gov. Jerry Brown is threatening to place his tax measure on the ballot without the support of Republicans as lawmakers run out of time for a bipartisan deal and his budget plan is at risk of collapse.

The governor, hewing to a campaign promise not to raise taxes without a nod from the public, has been unable to get the GOP votes needed to put on a statewide ballot his proposed five-year extension of some sales, income and vehicle levies.

He is mulling different strategies. One would skirt the Legislature entirely, relying on a citizen initiative and delaying an election until November. In another scenario, the Legislature's attorneys say he could take the issue to Californians by June with a simple legislative majority, which his fellow Democrats command.

Such strategies are rife with legal and political complications.

Normally, a two-thirds vote of the Legislature is needed for the government to place a question on the ballot, and Republican lawyers say they will challenge any simple-majority measure in court. In addition, Brown's own advisors say an end run around Republicans could make the taxes a much tougher sell to voters.

The other potential route — gathering signatures for a citizen initiative — would postpone an election until months after the expiration of the taxes Brown says he needs to extend to balance the budget. The next fiscal year begins July 1, when all of the temporary tax increases will have stopped.

Still, there are signs Brown is moving toward one of these Hail Mary scenarios. The governor, who has courted Republicans aggressively, has shifted his tone in recent days.

He released a YouTube video Sunday night in which he warned that lawmakers were preventing the people from voting on taxes. He alleged in a speech Monday night that GOP lawmakers are utilizing "a zone defense" to try to run out the clock on his election timeline.

A June election has been central to the governor's strategy. Polls show voters are far more likely to sign off on taxes they already pay than on new ones.

Speaking before the California Labor Federation in a hotel ballroom near the Capitol on Monday night, Brown criticized Republicans for holding up his plan.

"They think they can say, 'No, you have no right to vote.' And that's wrong," he said. "We will vote no matter what anybody says across the street."

The governor turned coy when asked whether he had in hand a legal maneuver to circumvent the two-thirds requirement, or planned to proceed by initiative.

"I'm not prepared to cease negotiating in good faith," he said.

Meanwhile, Democrats are weighing how they might go about placing the billions in taxes on the ballot with a simple majority vote.

Legislative attorneys have said the issue could be couched as an amendment to a previous tax measure approved by voters. Such amendments do not require a two-thirds vote to reach the ballot. But experts caution that recent measures available for amendment did not involve sales or vehicle taxes.

Brown and lawmakers are also considering an argument that the state Constitution does not necessarily require a two-thirds vote to take a proposal to voters. That argument has been called legally dubious even by the Legislature's attorneys.

"I don't see how you can argue you can get around the two-thirds requirement," said GOP political attorney Thomas Hiltachk. "There's clearly no legal authority to do that in the Constitution."

The prospect of a court fight combined with partisan discord and a complex ballot question could hurt Brown's chances that voters would approve the taxes, said Mark Baldassare, president of the Public Policy Institute of California.

"How does the public respond to all of this noise?" he said. "It raises more questions from them about whether this is the best path forward."

Time to reach a bipartisan deal on a June election is running out. Democratic legislative leaders say they'd like an accord by the end of this week.

Brown has not set a hard deadline, but his spokesman Gil Duran said Tuesday, "You can't talk forever, and that's not the plan. Obviously, the governor's preference is that we have this on the June ballot. As of today, that's still the plan."

anthony.york@latimes.com

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