Few signs of progress in solving Calif. budget

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Gov. Jerry Brown and Democratic legislative leaders began a new week of budget negotiations Monday with optimism, even as they admitted little progress on how to address the remainder of California’s $26.6 billion shortfall.

Brown, a Democrat, has missed his self-imposed deadline to put a special election on tax extensions before voters, and lawmakers say it’s increasingly unlikely that any such measure could be placed on the ballot June 7, when several municipalities hold local elections.

But Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg said this is the week to get bipartisan support to call a vote.

“Time is of the essence. ... We’re talking days, not weeks,“ Steinberg, a Sacramento Democrat, said after meeting with Brown and Assembly Speaker John Perez, D-Los Angeles. ”There’s going to be an all-hands effort to try to pull together an agreement and to try to get the minimum number of Republican votes — or more than the minimum number — to give the people a choice.“

The governor spoke to a gathering of labor officials Monday night and said he wanted to be on a conciliatory path with GOP members. But he criticized Republican lawmakers as being obstructionists. Members have also opposed his plan to eliminate the state’s redevelopment agencies, a plan the governor argues would put more money toward education and public safety.

“Well if you’re not going to vote to extend taxes, you’re not going to vote to cut, you’re not going to vote to do anything to redevelopment — so what the hell are you going to do,” Brown said. “By the way, if you’re not going to do anything, why do you take a paycheck?”

Earlier in the day he took to YouTube, asking Californians to let lawmakers know they want a chance to vote.

“I don’t see this as a Republican or a Democratic issue,” Brown said in his three-minute video. “This is a matter of all of us thinking as Californians first and acting in solidarity to grapple with problems that have been avoided too long.”

The Legislature began chipping away at the deficit last week, primarily by cutting health care services for seniors and the poor. But the most contentious parts of Brown’s budget proposal remain unresolved, including his desire to eliminate local redevelopment agencies and his call for a special election.

Brown wants voters to decide whether to extend temporary increases in the personal income, sales and vehicle taxes enacted two years ago. If voters approve, those taxes would bring in an estimated $9.2 billion a year for five more years. That is on top of $12.5 billion in spending cuts.

While no Republicans support the plan, five GOP senators have engaged in discussions with Brown and Democrats. Several met with Steinberg on Monday. They want pension reform, a state spending cap and regulatory changes, primarily to environmental rules they say stymie economic development.

Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger last year won concessions on public employee pensions through the Legislature and collective bargaining, and Brown has succeeded in getting rollbacks in contract agreements his administration recently struck with several state unions.

Nevertheless, the Republican senators are pressing for more changes, such as converting to a hybrid retirement plan that blends the current defined benefits with 401(k)-style savings account.

One of the five GOP senators, Sen. Sam Blakeslee of San Luis Obispo, said Brown has so far rejected their ideas. He suggested the governor has not been willing to challenge his own party to accept changes that are unpalatable to unions, which are major donors to Democratic candidates and causes.

“All five of us who have stepped forward have put ourselves in very, very precarious positions,“ Blakeslee said, referring to a backlash within his own party, including a brief attempt within the state GOP to label any Republican lawmakers who compromise with Brown as a traitor. ”We would not have sat down at the table if we thought this was a sham offer to negotiate.

“If at the end of the day he’s unwilling to accept any of these proposals, I think it’s going to make it more difficult for him to engage us and others in the future.”

Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, said he believes it is too late to put the tax extensions before voters on a June 7 ballot, and time is slipping away this week for a mid-June election.

“Every day that passes is a day we can’t retrieve, which makes me concerned about getting to a June 14 ballot date,” Leno said.

Mid-June also is the Legislature’s deadline for passing a budget, and the time when parents and school children begin going on vacation and turning their attention to summer activities.

Steinberg said he is hopeful negotiations advance now that the state GOP convention is over. Held last weekend in Sacramento, party activists brandished contempt for Republican lawmakers who have been negotiating with Brown and Democrats, who are seeking bipartisan support.

George Runner, a former state senator who was elected last fall to the state Board of Equalization, said the Legislature should be forced to live within the restraints of current state revenue, about $85 billion.

He said solving the budget deficit is the responsibility of Democrats, the majority party in the Assembly and Senate.

“Let’s not give them any help,” Runner said.

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Associated Press writer Judy Lin contributed to this report.

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