By GUY KOVNER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Gov. Jerry Brown and Democratic lawmakers need five Republican votes to put a $9 billion tax extension plan to a public vote in June, and an anti-tax pledge signed by nearly all GOP lawmakers appears to stand in their way.
“I don’t see those votes,” Assemblyman Jim Nielsen, R-Biggs, said. “I see a very unified (Republican) caucus.”
Nielsen, who represented Sonoma County in the state Senate from 1978 to 1990, now serves as vice chairman of the Assembly Budget Committee and is steadfastly opposed to Brown’s tax plan.
Like the other 26 Assembly Republicans, Nielsen signed the “Taxpayer Protection Pledge” promulgated by anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, founder of the Americans for Tax Reform organization in 1985.
All but two of the 14 Republican state senators have also signed the pledge, Norquist’s group says.
Democrats are shy by two votes in the Assembly and three votes in the Senate of the two-thirds majority needed to put the tax measures on a special election ballot — a linchpin in Brown’s plan to solve California’s $25 billion budget deficit.
Norquist, who helped craft the Bush federal tax cuts, sent all the pledge signers in the California Legislature a letter last month stating that a vote to put Brown’s taxes on the ballot would violate their pledge to “oppose and vote against any and all efforts to raise taxes.”
Some Democrats are simmering over Norquist’s engagement with California, while Republicans say the pledge merely reflects their core belief in shrinking government.
“Who appointed this Washington, D.C. lobbyist king of the state of California?” Sen. Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa, said.
Without added revenues, Evans said, lawmakers will be obliged to adopt an “all-cuts budget” that would likely include cutting the public school year by a week, closing parks and libraries, shortchanging local governments and letting non-violent offenders out of prison.
Nielsen, who now represents a sprawling district along the I-5 corridor from Yolo County to Yreka, said the GOP opposition to taxes “is not about a response to a pledge,” but a “fundamental belief” that raising taxes does not fix a broken system.
Despite $40 billion in previous cuts to the state general fund, “government has not changed all that much,” Nielsen said.
Brown wants a vote by lawmakers in March to put a proposed five-year extension of several current tax rates on a June ballot, and is personally lobbying leaders and rank-and-file members of both parties to back his plan, said H.D. Palmer, a state Department of Finance spokesman.
The governor believes “things are on track right now” and that lawmakers “grasp the gravity of the situation,” Palmer said.
“I know the governor is working very hard to win their (Republicans’) support,” Evans said.
If approved by voters, the tax plan would generate more than $9 billion in the fiscal year beginning July 1, comprising the bulk of $12 billion in “revenue solutions” to the deficit, Palmer said.
The proposed revenues are balanced by $12.5 billion in spending cuts proposed by the governor, he said.
There is no specific “Plan B” if the tax plan is rejected, but Palmer said the only recourse would be multi-billion-dollar cuts in the areas “where California spends the money.”
Public schools at $36 billion and health and human services at $21 billion collectively account for more than two-thirds of the general fund budget, Palmer said.
Higher education (nearly $10 billion) and corrections ($9 billion) round out the top four expenditures.
Assemblyman Michael Allen, D-Santa Rosa, said he is “optimistic” that Brown and others can “get the votes necessary” to put the tax plan on the ballot.
“The proof is in what happens over the next couple of months,” Allen said.
Two out of three adults support the idea of putting the taxes to a public vote, but a smaller majority — just 53 percent — favors the actual taxes, according to a Public Policy Institute of California poll released last week.
Democrats (65 percent) and Independents (60 percent) were more favorably disposed to the tax plan than Republicans (37 percent).
Statewide polls may have some influence, but no one in the Legislature runs statewide, said Jim Brulte, a former Republican leader in the state Senate and Assembly who now works as a political consultant.
“Legislators listen to the sentiments in their district,” he said, noting that Brown’s proposal “is not an easy vote for Republicans.”
Letting voters decide on the taxes is not, in his mind, a tax increase, Brulte said, but “Republican primary voters might not see it that way.”
No California Democratic lawmaker has signed the Norquist pledge. Two Republican senators — Anthony Cannella of Ceres and Sam Blakeslee of San Luis Obispo — have not signed it.
Nielsen contended that Brown’s package is a tax increase because it involves tax rates that were established in 2009 with the premise they would last only two years. The governor’s plan would turn them into seven-year taxes, Nielsen said.
He also dismissed the idea that voters should be allowed to decide the matter. “I think the Legislature needs to make the decision and not punt it to the voters,” Nielsen said.
Evans, who serves on the Senate Budget Committee, said the key question is whether “California voters have the right to determine their own future.”
Of the 29 ballot measures offered to voters in special elections between 1973 and 2009, only eight have been approved, said David McCuan, a Sonoma State political scientist.
“Voters like to be asked to dance,” he said. “They like to say ‘no.’”