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Editorial

Two ways to a tax vote

With Republicans balking, Gov. Brown may shift from a June ballot decision to one in November.

March 24, 2011

Gov. Jerry Brown seems determined to let voters, not legislators, decide whether to extend a set of temporary tax increases in lieu of making deeper cuts in state services. So if he can't persuade a handful of Republican lawmakers to schedule a ballot measure on the tax extensions in June, he may mount a petition drive to put the issue before voters in November. The delay might reduce the chances of the measure passing, but it's still a better option than the all-cuts budget that Brown previously described as the only alternative.

At issue is how to close a $26.6-billion budget gap over the next 15 months. Following Brown's lead, Democrats in the Legislature proposed to cut about $12 billion from public services, including painful reductions in safety-net programs, more than $1 billion in cuts to higher education and the elimination of local redevelopment agencies. They also called for a ballot measure in June to raise more than $12 billion in revenue by extending four temporary hikes in sales, income and vehicle taxes that were set to expire by July. Just to put the measure in front of voters, however, Democrats have to win the support of at least two Republicans in each chamber. And most GOP lawmakers have opposed it.

Weeks of talks between Brown and legislators have raised hopes for a deal, but the deadline is rapidly approaching for putting the tax extensions on the June ballot. Democrats complain that Republicans don't know when to declare victory, while Republicans say Democrats haven't conceded anything meaningful. In particular, Republicans want to include a spending cap and reduced pensions for new state workers in the ballot measure, and they want a shorter extension on the taxes than the five years Brown proposed.

Both sides need to swallow hard and strike a deal. Balancing the budget solely through spending cuts would inflict too much damage on public schools and other vital state programs. Extending the temporary tax increases is the lesser evil by far. Although we don't support making a fundamental change in state worker pensions as part of a last-minute budget deal, there are steps the Legislature can and should take to lower pension costs and prevent abuses. A tough spending cap for the five-year duration of the tax increases is a reasonable compromise, especially with a proposal for a permanent cap already set to go before the voters next year. And lawmakers could agree to cut the tax extensions short if revenues grew faster than anticipated.

Brown offered his new backup plan earlier this week, telling lawmakers that he may try to gather enough voter signatures to put the tax issue on the November ballot. Republicans eager to avoid destructive spending cuts and achieve some budget reforms should take Brown's move as a warning. As long as Democrats need their votes, they have leverage to achieve some of their goals. But that leverage vanishes if time runs out for getting a measure on the June ballot.

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