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California's Choice: Clarity or Gridlock

A Commentary by Debra J. Saunders

When he ran for governor, Democrat Jerry Brown made a promise to voters -- "no new taxes without voter approval." That pledge was what you would call a gimmick. Brown knew he would have to woo or squeeze a few Republicans in order to get a the two-thirds vote necessary to qualify a tax hike for the ballot. On taking office, Brown promptly proposed a June special election to put an extension of temporary increases in state income tax, sales tax and car fees before voters.

Many pundits applauded the wily Democrat's tactic of proposing a tax vote, but only so that he could keep his campaign pledge.

But it may turn out to be a dud. Brown still has not managed to nudge four Republicans -- two from the Assembly, two from the Senate -- to vote for his tax plan.

In March, a two-thirds budget vote would have resulted in a special election in June, before the sales and car tax extensions sunset. I thought a handful of Republican realists should have voted to put the Brown plan on the ballot. But five GOP moderates wanted to "let the voters decide" on their pet measures -- a spending cap and pension reform -- and that killed any deal.

Wednesday is the official deadline for the Legislature to pass a budget. If the Legislature fails, no more paychecks until the job is done.

Now the Brownies are pushing for a September special election -- with the car and sales tax extensions continuing temporarily, but one less year of the income tax hike -- until they are approved or rejected. Brown warned Monday that without the added cash, the state may begin "a decline that at some point becomes irreversible."

Will there be a deal? It's possible. The GOP 5 released a statement that noted "significant agreement" on their reforms. Now, especially after the state has collected $6.6 billion in unanticipated revenue, they won't vote for Brown's "bridge tax" -- as a temporary "legislatively mandated tax increase ... violates the governor's own pledge."

It defies logic that the same Republicans who did not vote for a June ballot measure now would vote to raise taxes before a ballot measure -- in order to let voters decide later.

But there are reasons to do so. For one thing, like Democrats who have snatched back big chunks of Brown's proposed spending cuts, GOP lawmakers aren't very good at voting for cuts.

Voters rejected a similar tax extension by a 2-to-1 ratio in 2009. GOP strategist Mitch Zak said Republicans should be thinking, "My reforms have a chance of passing. Tax extensions don't."

Democrats clearly know they could lose. In March, when Brown said he wanted a special election as soon as possible, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg said it "ought to be as far off as is reasonably possible."

Brown believes Californians will approve his tax package. If he is right, at least voters will have chosen to pay for the government they've selected -- and with broad-based taxes so that everyone pays. And there would be clarity.

Without a clean vote, Brown predicts a "war of all against all" -- as special interests trammel the state in an unending battle to make sure that only the other side gives. In such a world, problems do not get solved.


See Other Political Commentary

See Other Commentary by Debra J. Saunders

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