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California Legislature To Vote On Governor's Budget Proposal Wednesday

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BROWN
Gov. Jerry Brown discusses the state budget with reporters before making a luncheon speech to state probation officers in Sacramento, California, on Tuesday March 15, 2011. Both houses of the legislature have scheduled to meet early Wednesday afternoon for floor votes on closing California's $26.6 billion deficit. | AP Photo

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- The leaders of both legislative houses on Tuesday scheduled votes on California Gov. Jerry Brown's budget proposal, even though no Republicans have come forward to promise the votes necessary for approval.

The state Senate and Assembly are scheduled to meet early Wednesday afternoon for floor votes on closing California's $26.6 billion deficit.

The Democratic governor wants to balance $12.5 billion in spending cuts with a five-year extension of temporary increases in the sales, personal income and vehicle taxes first enacted two years ago. He has asked the Legislature to call a special election in June to allow voters to decide the tax question.

The package that both chambers will consider largely echoes Brown's vision, except for what Democratic lawmakers viewed as the most extreme cuts.

Republican legislators have refused to let the tax vote move forward and face increasing pressure to stick to the party line. Brown said he is particularly troubled by a conservative faction within the California Republican Party that wants to label as a traitor any lawmaker who votes for the governor's plan.

"Unfortunately, now the more extreme elements of the Republican Party are about to brand any Republican legislator a terrorist and some evil being if they give the people the right to vote," Brown told reporters Tuesday before a luncheon speech to state probation officers. "And if it comes to a situation in America where letting the people vote becomes an act of terrorism, we're in a very serious situation when a major party thinks that way."

The state GOP is scheduled to meet this weekend in Sacramento for its spring convention. Republican lawmakers who might be inclined to compromise on the budget are reluctant to do so ahead of the convention, where they would be ostracized by party leaders and die-hard conservatives.

Two Republicans are needed in the Assembly and Senate to reach the two-thirds vote threshold required to place the tax question before voters. Although no GOP lawmakers have said they will support the ballot measure, five in the Senate have been negotiating with Brown.

Republicans argue that extending the tax increases enacted two years ago would cripple the state as it struggles to recover from the recession.

"Our members believe taxes would further damage our economy, and instead we're looking at reforms that would fix our chronic budget problems," said Sabrina Lockhart, spokeswoman for Assembly Republican Leader Connie Conway.

The state Department of Finance estimates the tax hikes have cost Californians $260 a year on a per-capita basis. The increase in the personal income tax alone costs $125 to an individual earning $40,000 a year, or $320 to couples who make $100,000 a year and file their taxes jointly.

Brown said his June ballot proposal is a question not just about tax extensions but about how constituents want him to proceed with the budget.

"I'm perfectly willing, if the people say no, that I'll go through and I think I will have the vote of the people with the cuts that have to be made," he said. "That's why I say that the vote is important, not for taxes only, but for cuts."

Most Republican lawmakers have signed a national anti-tax pledge pushed by the Washington, D.C.-based group Americans for Tax Reform. Many also have joined a new group called the Taxpayer Caucus to oppose a tax extension.

The group of Republican senators, referred to in the Capitol as the GOP 5, did not join the Taxpayer Caucus and seemed to be Democrats' best hope of reaching a budget deal in at least one house. But negotiations stalled over the weekend, with Republicans saying they did not get the reforms they wanted.

The Republicans have called for implementing a state spending cap, freezing pension benefits for current state and local government workers, and reducing regulations for businesses. The lawmakers issued a joint statement Tuesday saying they remain united and will continue advocating for their agenda.

Senate Minority Leader Bob Dutton, R-Rancho Cucamonga, disputed the Democrats' contention that their budget plan was balanced. He said extending the two-year-old tax increases for another five years would raise an estimated $50 billion in new revenue during that time and the plan does nothing to solve the state's long-term fiscal imbalance.

"It is just another short-sighted tax-and-spend scheme that relies on a $50 billion bailout from California taxpayers," he said in a statement.

Still, Democrats are pushing ahead with a budget vote.

"Who says we don't have Republican support?" said Shannon Murphy, spokeswoman for Assembly Speaker John Perez, D-Los Angeles. "We'll take it as it comes. I'm not going to second guess what people are going to do or not do under hypotheticals."

Mark Hedlund, a spokesman for Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, also left open the possibility that Republicans could be brought into the fold.

Hedlund said floor debates need to begin so each party could see where the other stands.

Time is running short for the Legislature to pass a budget that includes a special election.

Brown wants the election held June 7 to coincide with local elections in many California cities. That also would provide enough time to prepare for the planned expiration of some of the tax hikes on July 1, but it's not clear when the Legislature has to pass the budget to make that happen.

It missed Brown's self-imposed deadline last Thursday.

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