Reader, beware: You are about to enter a twilight zone in which the finely shaded nuances of constitutional law collide with power and money politics. For weeks, the Capitol’s $64 billion question has been whether at least a few Republicans would break ranks and vote for California Gov. Jerry Brown’s budget, specifically for giving voters the option of extending temporary income, sales and car taxes, which are expiring, for five more years.
The governor’s deadline — March 10 — is 89 days from June 7, the date on which he would like to have a special tax election, and the number is significant.
The plea for Republican votes hinges on an assumption that because the state constitution provides no direct mechanism for voters to approve taxes, it would have to be done by constitutional amendment and thus would require a two-thirds legislative vote, and support from a few GOP legislators. But that’s where the situation really gets complicated.
Last week, The Sacramento Bee revealed that GOP senators had obtained an opinion from the Legislature’s lawyer confirming that there is an alternative method of placing taxes before voters without a two-thirds vote. It gives Republicans some political cover since they can argue that Democrats can seek a tax election on their own.
The Legislative Counsel Bureau said the Legislature could, by a simple majority vote, propose to voters an amendment to a previously approved statutory initiative, assumedly one dealing with taxes, that could include tax extensions. To have an election on such a measure (or multiple measures) in June, however, action would have to occur in a special legislative session, allowing the measure to become law 90 days after its adjournment.
Convoluted? Absolutely. And to Brown and other Democrats, it would be a very unsatisfactory alternative because they want some GOP support for a veneer of bipartisanship. The backdoor approach not only would strip that facade, but would also make the ballot measure appear to be some kind of trick that could alienate voters already leery of raising taxes. And it would invite a legal battle.
Would Democrats take that route if it’s the only way to get billions of dollars in revenue to stave off even deeper spending cuts?
Would they instead, as Brown says he’d advocate if taxes are blocked, whack spending more deeply, take the heat from public employee unions and other Democratic constituencies, and try to deflect it to Republicans?
We should know some answers in about a week.
Dan Walters’ Sacramento Bee columns on state politics are syndicated by the Scripps Howard News Service.