SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Gov. Jerry Brown has struggled to find the four Republican votes he needs for the centerpiece of his budget proposal — a special election on higher taxes — but he also faces resistance from the Democratic Party’s most influential supporters.
The public employee unions and labor groups that backed his election last year, fund the campaigns of the Democratic lawmakers who are essential to his success and would be needed to finance a ballot measure campaign have been cool to his push for a special election.
Unions support the higher taxes but are wary of the spending limits and pension reforms Republican lawmakers want as part of any deal they might strike with Brown. They are even more nervous about a special election that could see voters shoot down the taxes and approve the other changes.
Even groups such as the California Labor Federation, which stood alongside Brown last week in support of his budget proposal, want to see details.
“We’re open to the governor and the Legislature putting a broad coalition together” to prevent cuts to education and public safety, federation spokesman Steve Smith said. “But if you’re talking about gutting retirement for California’s workers in exchange for extending taxes for three to five years, we would have to take a hard look at that.”
Brown and Democratic lawmakers already have trimmed a $26.6 billion deficit to $9.6 billion, primarily through spending cuts to welfare, health and social service programs.
The governor, a Democrat, has said deep cuts to schools, public safety and higher education will be needed to balance the budget for the coming fiscal year unless increases to the sales, vehicle and personal income taxes enacted two years ago are renewed. The increase to the income tax rate expired in January, and the higher sales and vehicle taxes will expire June 30.
The only budget plans Brown has presented this year involve asking the Legislature to call a special election so voters can decide whether to extend those taxes for up to five years. He promised during his gubernatorial campaign last year that he would only increase taxes if voters agreed to do so.
Officials with public employee unions are asking whether trading a relatively short boost in tax revenue for permanent pension changes and a spending limit is worth it. They want to cure the ongoing budget uncertainty that has hit their members with pink slips and furloughs without slashing benefits.
“I don’t know that we can see spending a bunch of our members’ money on something that’s a one-time fix,” said Ryan Sherman, a spokesman for the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, which represents state prison guards.
Recent surveys by the Field Poll and Public Policy Institute of California show weak public support for the specific tax extensions Brown desires.
Members of the California Teachers Association spent a week in May protesting at the Capitol and holding rallies throughout the state in support of the tax extensions. But the union wants specifics before it can take a position on Brown’s plan for a special election and decide whether to spend money for a ballot campaign, union spokesman Jonathan Goldman said.
“We don’t know if this would be a tax extension alone or there would be other things attached,” he said.
The Service Employees International Union, which represents about 95,000 state government workers and is the largest state employee union, declined to comment on the prospect of a special election.
Earlier this month, a top union official expressed reservations about Brown’s plan to hold a special election that would include the tax increases, pension reforms and a state spending cap.
“I think it’s highly likely (the taxes) would lose,” David Kieffer, executive director of the SEIU California State Council, told The Sacramento Bee.
Unions fear a special election would lead to a worst-case scenario for them — voters approving a firm spending cap and reduced public employee pensions while defeating the tax extensions and the $9.2 billion a year they would generate for the state’s general fund.
If the matter must be put to the voters, several labor leaders said they would prefer to wait until November 2012, when President Barack Obama will be up for re-election and Democrats can be expected to head to the polls in large numbers.
They also want the ballot questions to be packaged as an all-or-nothing proposition: If one failed, all would fail.
“If their deal is not linked to the passage of the revenue, that’s problematic for us,” said Willie L. Pelote Sr., a political and legislative director for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees in California.
The union represents 178,000 workers in the state, including more than 14,000 who work for state government.
Whether Brown can persuade Republican lawmakers to accept that approach is uncertain.
Weeks ago, the Democratic governor said he was close to reaching a deal with Republicans to put pension reforms and a spending cap on the ballot. Two GOP votes are needed in each house of the Legislature to reach the two-thirds vote threshold needed for passing tax increases or putting measures on a ballot.
A spokesman for one of the Republican lawmakers who has been negotiating with Brown was skeptical about linking the ballot questions. Republicans have expressed confidence that if the issues go before voters, the tax renewals will lose.
“We think each question stands alone on its merits,” said Joe Justin, chief of staff for state Sen. Bill Emmerson, R-Hemet.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)