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Brown taps deep political skills to sell budget

By Juliet Williams

Associated Press

Published: Monday, Jan. 17 2011 8:45 a.m. MST

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Jerry Brown promised Californians plenty of pain in his budget plan for the coming year, and he was right.

He has proposed $12 billion in spending cuts, much of it coming from higher education and services for the poor, disabled and elderly. And he wants to ask voters in a special election to extend increases in the sales, income and vehicle taxes.

Republicans and anti-tax groups already are dismissing Brown's plan to extend the tax hikes for another five years to pay for a host of programs, drawing a line in the sand just weeks into Brown's term.

But after spending most of his life in politics, the Democratic governor is unlikely to cede his proposal to the hyper partisanship that permeates the Capitol.

Instead, Brown will try to marshal all the skills he has amassed over a lifetime in politics to sell his plan, but he will have to do so quickly.

To put the tax measure before voters in a June special election, the Legislature will need to act by the end of March. That will be a tall order for an institution that typically runs well past the July 1 start of the fiscal year before enacting a budget. Last year, it set a record by going 100 days without a spending plan.

First, Brown must convince Democrats that slashing billions of dollars to social services and higher education is a fair trade for the opportunity to put an extension of the tax hikes enacted two years ago on the ballot. Then, and likely much more difficult, he will need to win over two-thirds of the state Legislature, including some Republicans, to get a measure on the ballot.

While Democrats have strong majorities, two GOP votes in the Assembly and three in the Senate are needed to meet the two-thirds vote threshold for enacting tax increases and placing measures on the ballot. Republican legislative leaders in both houses have pledged to block Brown's efforts.

Brown already has launched the kind of sales pitch that most lawmakers did not see during seven years of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's administration. The former Republican governor was criticized for ignoring most lawmakers in favor of private meetings with a select few to negotiate deals on major issues.

Last week, Brown met with the Republican and Democratic caucuses in each house, and later made an impromptu stop at a state Board of Education meeting.

The Legislature is a much different institution then when Brown was last governor, from 1975 to 1983, before voters imposed term limits. Most politicians stay for a relatively short time and have their eye on another office.

There are 120 different egos and agendas, said Steve Merksamer, a Republican attorney and former chief of staff to Gov. George Deukmejian.

"Having said that, I think Jerry Brown is extraordinarily skilled at working, sort of, the legislative process. He was born to this," he said. "He's done it already, and he's been doing this his entire life."

Brown is appealing to interest groups, business leaders and politicians to step away from their entrenched interests, and already has displayed some prowess at winning hearts.

One of his first meetings after being sworn in as governor this month was held with a bipartisan group of officials from the California State Association of Counties, where supervisors also noticed the change in tone. Brown came to the association's office, rather than summoning those officials to his Capitol office, Yolo County Supervisor Mike McGowan noted.

"We didn't have to trot over there like little children and go into the governor's office and get patted on the head and say 'Bad things are going to happen to you.' We had an opportunity to have a real dialogue and a conversation," McGowan said after the first meeting with the Democratic governor.

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