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California Budget Crisis: Jerry Brown Debates Lawmakers

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JERRY BROWN
AP/Rich Pedroncelli

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — In an unprecedented public give-and-take, Gov. Jerry Brown appeared before a legislative committee Thursday and engaged rank-and-file lawmakers in a discussion about how to address California's $26.6 billion budget deficit.

The Democratic governor is trying to sell lawmakers on his proposal for a June special election that would allow voters to decide on a five-year extension of increases to state sales, income and vehicle taxes.

The hour-long hearing was remarkable for the frankness of the exchanges between the governor and lawmakers that gave the public a wide-open look at what typically is a closed-door process.

"I believe in this situation that a check-in with the people is absolutely mandatory – mandatory not just to say, do we extend taxes. But it's also to get people's acceptance if we're going to have all these cuts," Brown told the joint committee formed to reconcile the Assembly and Senate versions of Democratic budget bills.

"Because if you're going to have $25 billion in cuts and you're going to cut four or five weeks of the school (year), then I think people are going to be shocked if you didn't ask their permission," the governor said.

He told Democrats they would have to accept more spending cuts and advised Republicans that authorizing a special election is not the same as voting for tax increases. Simply saying no to the vote is "not American. It's not acceptable and it's not loyal to California," Brown said.

On Wednesday, 29 of the 42 Republicans in the Legislature announced they had formed a "Taxpayers Caucus" to oppose the special election unless voters also are given a chance to enact a tax cut of equal or larger value.

The temporary increases to the sales, income and vehicles taxes were approved in 2009 to address that year's deficit but are set to expire this year.

Brown has proposed spending cuts that are roughly equal to the amount of revenue that would be raised if voters authorized the extension of the tax increases.

Brown said Republican pledges to avoid tax increases "make good theater," but the state is desperate for a solution to its ongoing budget problems.

"For those who say they don't want to vote, then why are you here? And if you're going to be here, give me some ideas," the governor said to lawmakers on the committee.

Brown's challenge was met with resistance from Republicans concerned about raising taxes.

Assemblywoman Diane Harkey, R-Dana Point, said she has suggested cutting spending 20 percent across-the-board without eliminating state workers.

She also proposed the state adopt pension reforms on top of concessions made under former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, and asked for regulatory relief to help improve the state's high unemployment rate.

"When you say that all we say is no, I'm very, very hurt and very insulted," Harkey said. "Because I've tried to have an open dialogue on this."

Brown said cutting 20 percent of spending would result in releasing inmates from prisons.

If voters reject the proposal for tax extensions, Brown said he would cut deeper into the budget. He offered to debate Harkey on temporary taxes in her Orange County district if she voted to put the tax extension on the ballot.

"Remember it's not a tax, it's a let the people speak," the governor said.

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