By Michael Gardner of the San Diego Union Tribune
For California Budget Watch
SACRAMENTO – Five Senate Republicans have volunteered to be on the front lines of the initial budget battle this year, including weighing whether to put taxes before voters again.
In doing so, those Republicans have jeopardized their political lives.
Thus far, the senators have limited public posturing to brief statements on their goals. Moreover, none have committed to asking voters to continue higher taxes – the most controversial element of Gov. Jerry Brown’s spending plan — even if they secure significant concessions.
Key ingredients are no-loopholes laws to: rein in pensions, impose a spending cap, adopt more business friendly regulations and cut spending. Those actions must be taken first, before a tax extension vote, the senators insist. They also want the higher taxes to disappear much sooner than the five years the governor has proposed as part of his spending plans.
Talks at times have been promising. Other times they have been at impasse. Perhaps telling of the group’s philosophy is this statement issued earlier this month as they decided to return to the just-left table:
“Getting to a constructive agreement involves difficult compromise. Although various interest groups may not have an appetite for real change, we believe the public is demanding it.”
And on Tuesday, the day before the Legislature began taking up the budget on both floors, the members vowed to hold out until their demands are met.
“We remain united as a team in the fight to get these priorities implemented,” said a joint statement.
While Republicans and Democrats joined to approve billions in spending cuts this week, the bipartisanship ended there. There were still no Republican votes for the special election Gov. Brown wants to hold in June to seek approval for the tax extensions. Two Republican votes are needed in each house to make that happen.
And that’s where the serious dealing begins – and ends.
Conservatives have long-pressed the same goals the GOP 5, as they are called, are pushing. But at the same many of the same partisans are vilifying the five for something they have yet to do, which is support asking voters whether to continue the temporary sales, income and car taxes due to expire June 30.
Opponents point out that voters in May 2009 rejected each tax extension. Those critics hold that the state will never seriously cut spending and deflate a bloated bureaucracy as long as more tax revenues flow.
Those taxes would raise about $11 billion a year, helping bridge a $26.6 billion budget gap over the next 15 months. That shortfall between projected spending and revenues represents nearly a-third of the state’s $86.4 billion annual general fund.
Brown proposes a five-year extension used to cover a range of expenses – mostly for schools and to help counties fund new responsibilities for state programs.
The internal warfare has been escalating leading into this weekend’s California Republican Party convention. Conservative factions are planning to issue condemnations of any Republican who dares support asking voters for more taxes. Moreover, the most zealous have even threatened to launch recalls.
In many respects, it is a replay of 2009. In February of that year several Republicans agreed to a budget deal that included tax hikes through June 30,2011. Those Republicans were branded traitors at the subsequent GOP spring convention.
Even if some Senate Republicans eventually cast yes votes, peace cannot be declared. Negotiations will then shift to the Assembly, which is generally considered even more conservative.
So far, no Republicans in the lower house have stepped forward publicly to suggest they would be willing to deal on the tax extension vote.
But, if the budget drags out that long, some may come out of the shadows after the Republican Convention.
Not all Republican groups are issuing threats. The New Majority, a moderate group with chapters in Orange and San Diego Counties, has sent a carefully worded letter to GOP legislative leaders urging compromise.
In an interview, Joe Jubela , chairman of the New Majority’s San Diego County branch, said the group wants guarantees that the pursued changes are in place. “That must happen first,” he said.
Then, it could get behind a tax extension, but only then.
Jubela said the spending cap, cuts and pensions would send an important message. Now, he continued, “Californians are paying far too much for far too little in services.”
Orange County’s Larry Higby, the statewide chairman of the New Majority, said in an interview that his policy is “no loopholes, no delay” toward reforms.
“We don’t believe in any tax increases without simultaneously doing the cuts and reforms,” Higby said.
Democrat constituencies have resisted overtures. Labor unions oppose restricting pension plans. And environmental groups are lobbying against easing regulatory standards, which they claim will gut laws protecting human health and wildlife. Teachers and others strongly oppose a strict limit on spending, claiming education has been shortchanged for several years.
Pure politics may be in play as much as policy and philosophy.
Conservatives tend to dominate Republican primaries, forcing GOP candidates to lean right. The opposite is true in many Democrat-heavy districts. But that could change in some parts of the state next year. That’s because California will implement for the first time a “top two” system that will send the two highest vote-getters on to the general election. In some instances, that could mean a face-off between a conservative and moderate Republican in the general election, or a liberal and moderate Democrat.
Also, with the census finished, political boundary lines are being redrawn by an independent commission. That means some lawmakers may see their power base moved out of the district. In other instances, two sitting legislators may find their homes in the same district.
Personal ambitions also come into play. Of the GOP 5, one is termed out. Another must run again in 2012.
But three of the Senate Republicans do not go before voters again until 2014 – a lifetime in politics. They could be the ones demanding a shorter timeframe for the extensions so the taxes disappear before they are on the ballot.
Governor Brown could also offer plum appointments to those who cannot or will not seek reelection.
WHO ARE THEY:
Tom Harman of Huntington Beach: Former assemblyman will be termed out of Senate next year. An attorney, he will be 70 in late May.
Bill Emmerson of Hemet: A former assemblyman, he joined the Senate following a special election in 2010. Must run again in 2012. He is 65 and an orthodontist.
Sam Blakeslee of San Luis Obispo: a former Assembly Republican leader, he won a special election for the Senate last summer. Next election is in 2014. A geophysicist, he will be 56 in late June.
Tom Berryhill of Modesto: A former assemblyman elected to the Senate in 2010. Next election is 2014. A winegrape grower, he will be 58 in late August. His brother , Bill, serves in the Assembly.
Anthony Cannella: He is the youngest and only one of the five senators without experience in the Assembly. Elected last year, does not go before voters until 2014. The former mayor of Ceres and a civil engineer, he turns 42 on Tuesday (March 22).
WHAT THEY WANT:
Few specifics are being revealed. But here is a broad outline of what they have been discussing for some time with no resolution: *
- Spending cap: A tight rein that can only be broken in emergencies. School funding would be a priority, allowing for more on per-pupil spending.
- Education reforms: Modifications to tenure that protects teachers. Tying jobs with performance, giving administrators more flexibility to fire bad teachers. Parents should have a right to choose schools.
- Pensions: End guaranteed, or defined, pension plans for new employees. Switch to 401K type plans and require workers to pay more into the system. End the policy of tying pension benefits to the last, and presumably, highest salary. Ban pensions that would exceed $100,000 a year.
- Regulations: Draft more business friendly regulations and require rules and laws to include the estimated cost on business. Also, more tightly control lawsuits brought against business.
- Government services: Allow private business to bid on more state services and projects.
- Tax reform: Adopt comprehensive reforms, particularly lower the tax rates. In return, close loopholes and broaden the taxpayer base.
- Redevelopment: Agree to some reforms on divisions of the property tax and limit the types of projects that can be funded. But, protect the basic structure and goals of redevelopment agencies and enterprise zones designed to encourage business investment in selected neighborhoods.
- Tax extension: Only agree to place a measure on the ballot if the above demands are complied with substantially. Even then, have the extension expire sooner than the currently proposed five years.
Source: GOP proposal to governor and interviews.