Reporting from Sacramento — Amid Gov. Jerry Brown's continuing public silence about what taxes he will seek on the ballot next year, a disparate collection of others — community activists, labor unions, even an eccentric billionaire — are hatching their own plans.
It's not clear whether any of them will forge a consensus on a mix of new levies to put before voters next fall in the hope of plugging the state's chronic budget deficits. But their efforts are affecting the debate and commanding the governor's attention.
Though a vote would be more than a year away, in November 2012, a decision about what taxes the groups want to pursue must come soon. Qualifying ballot initiatives takes months, and proposals will be drafted this fall to meet that timetable.
Two new organizations are testing ideas for both short-term budget patches and a more fundamental restructuring of the state's tax system that they think could solve California's systemic fiscal problems.
California Calls, a coalition of community activists and labor leaders, has started preparing for a potential campaign, organizing voters across Southern and Central California to build a case for higher taxes on upper-income earners. The group has convened focus groups to help hone a pro-tax message that it hopes voters will embrace.
"A lot of people are wondering what the governor will do. We're not waiting," said Anthony Thigpenn, a political organizer who has worked for Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and now heads California Calls. "We're hoping by being proactive and trying to provide some leadership that we can impact the process."
The Think Long Committee, a good-government group funded by billionaire Nicolas Berggruen, has a board that includes former Gov. Gray Davis, developer and philanthropist Eli Broad and Google Chief Executive Eric Schmidt. They are working on proposals for overhauling the state's tax system, including a lowering of sales and personal income tariffs and creating new ones on services that are not currently taxed.
And an assortment of unions, whose deep pockets would likely be tapped to fund a campaign, are conducting their own opinion polls and focus groups to find a sales pitch for taxes. That effort is led by the California Teachers Assn. and other public-employee groups.
According to insiders who have observed the focus groups, voters appear deeply suspicious about new taxes and generally unwilling to send more money to Sacramento politicians, who remain unpopular.
All of the groups are encountering some of the same dynamics that Brown has faced. Taxes that poll the best among voters — higher levies on the wealthy and certain corporate taxes — stir up business opposition. The proposals that well-heeled business interests wouldn't fight— broad increases in the income tax, sales tax or vehicle license fees — are unpopular with the public.
"They don't know what they want," Brown said of the disparate pro-tax forces.
Brown has yet to announce exactly what he wants to see in a ballot measure and admits he has been too preoccupied with legislation over the last month to focus on the issue.
"Is he pulling people into a room and knocking heads? Not to my knowledge," said Lenny Goldberg, executive director of the California Tax Reform Assn. and an advisor to labor groups on the issue of tax policy. "The governor is in a position to get people on the same page and move people in the same direction, so hopefully that will happen."
Brown has dropped some hints about what kinds of taxes he would support. He has already proposed changes in corporate taxes. And last month, he told reporters that the state's highest income earners should be asked to pay more.
"I think everyone has to sacrifice to get this country back on track," he said. "But I think those with the biggest belts have to pull them in the most."
Willie Pelote Sr., the California president of the Assn. of Federal, State, County and Municipal Employees, says his group supports raising taxes for high earners.
"Voters would prefer to see a tax on the upper brackets than to see the continuation of massive service reductions, increased class sizes and the elimination of child-care funding," Pelote said.
The California Teachers Assn. polls, according to some who have seen the survey results, say tax proposals are most popular when the levies would be earmarked for specific programs such as schools or universities rather than left to lawmakers' discretion.
Brown said he's had preliminary discussions with union leaders and others interested in new taxes, "but so far, nobody's suggesting anything they feel confident about."