California Gov. Seeks Public Vote On Tax Increases

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California Gov. Jerry Brown has broken off budget talks with the state Legislature, rekindling fears that the state will not be able to back away from the fiscal abyss. John Myers of member station KQED has details.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

California has its own budget stalemate. Governor Jerry Brown called off budget negotiations last week. He cannot move forward without the support of at least some Republicans.

John Myers reports from our member station KQED.

JOHN MYERS: A few hours after budget talks broke down at the state capitol in Sacramento, Jerry Brown posted a video on YouTube reminding everyone why his proposal to tackle a $26 billion deficit was the right one.

Governor JERRY BROWN (Democrat, California): It's a balanced plan and has the support of business, of labor, of environmentalists, of farm groups. I mean an amazing coalition that spans the spectrum.

MYERS: But not on that list: Republicans in the California legislature. Brown needed at least four GOP lawmakers to go along with the lynchpin of his budget plan, a statewide ballot measure where voters would be asked to approve $11 billion of additional taxes. Those taxes, plus the billions in spending cuts and other changes enacted last month, would erase California's deficit.

But the few Republicans who considered signing off on a tax ballot measure wanted more - long-term changes in public employee pensions, fewer business regulations, and a temporary cap on state spending.

State Senator BILL EMERSON (Republican, California): The governor and his stakeholders were unwilling to go there.

MYERS: Republican Bill Emerson is a state senator from Riverside County, east of Los Angeles. He said it all fell apart over the idea of a spending cap, one that would stay in place and limit new expenses until billions of dollars in existing debt was paid off.

State Sen. EMERSON: Our problem is a structural problem that keeps going on and on and on, and we need to make that correction and get that taken care of.

MYERS: But Democrats and their supporters in organized labor and the environmental community argued the list of Republican demands kept expanding, not narrowing. They focused on a seven-page list of issues presented by Republican legislative leaders. It included changes in landmark environmental laws, protection of a pricey corporate tax break, even restored money for county fairs, all while deep cuts are being made to just about everything else in state government.

Democrat Darrell Steinberg is the president pro tem of the California state senate.

State Senator DARRELL STEINBERG (Democrat, California): The only thing missing from this list is a pony, and we'd give them a pony if they gave the people the opportunity to cast a vote.

MYERS: Now the people of California are unlikely to vote on additional taxes, at least not before the start of the state's new fiscal year on July 1.

Governor Brown has insisted he will not use the many budget-balancing gimmicks of years past. He says that means without taxes, California's deficit will be erased solely with cuts.

Gov. BROWN: All cuts is going to be an irreversible path forward that will leave a lot of tears in its wake.

MYERS: That approach could mean $5 billion less for K through 12 schools in California, three billion less for higher education, and billions more cut from social services and possibly public safety. Brown is gearing up to travel the state, an effort to drum up public pressure. That's a far cry from his campaign for another go-round as governor, where he bragged of his insider's ability to get things done. Now Jerry Brown seems to have realized that he alone is unable to broker a truce in the fistfight that for years has left California's budget in limbo and bruised its political reputation.

For NPR News, I'm John Myers, in Sacramento.

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