Look out: Here comes another California budget showdown 

The debate about a California budget has been under way for many years while the budget has drifted in and out of solvency, mostly the latter. But the current phase of the legislative debate could be the beginning of the end of one particular segment of this particular year’s version.

The Democrats are poised to put on a big show to present their budget, including an extension of billions of dollars in temporary taxes that otherwise would expire.

They’ll recite tales of woe from police, fire and education officials and warnings that thousands of felons will be released from prison under federal court order.

Supposedly it’s all aimed at shaming at least a few Republicans into voting for the tax extensions that would remain in effect until voters decide, as much as a year from now, whether they would be extended even further.

But Republicans are publicly and privately insistent that they won’t vote for the “bridge taxes,” even for the few months that Gov. Jerry Brown wants until an election, although a few are willing to submit taxes to voters, if accompanied by budget and pension reforms.

Democrats say that would disrupt schools and other vital programs. But their real concern is that stopping the taxes now means they would be characterized as “new taxes” rather than “tax extensions,” and thus make voter approval less likely.

But even as extensions, the taxes do not fare very well in voter polls.

David Kieffer, who heads one of the state’s largest unions, the Service Employees International Union, termed the taxes “a loser” last week and hinted that his union may not provide campaign funds for the election Brown wants in order to satisfy his campaign pledge not to tax without voter agreement.

It is, in the inimitable Oliver Hardy’s words, “another fine mess.” And assuming Republicans refuse to vote for the bridge taxes, as seems likely, what then?

Brown and other Democrats may be compelled to accept the deal Republicans are offering, or they could bypass a tax election this year and close the deficit, at least on paper, with some more spending cuts and the gimmicks Brown has insisted he won’t employ.

Were the taxes to die, either in the Legislature or at the polls, it sets the stage for a huge conflict in 2012.

Legislators would be running in newly drawn districts, Democrats would be seeking total control with two-thirds legislative margins and voters would face an array of competing budget, pension and tax measures.

Brown calls that a “war of all against all.” That’s pretty accurate.

Dan Walters’ Sacramento Bee columns on state politics are syndicated by the Scripps Howard News Service.

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Dan Walters

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