Confusion reigned in the Capitol Monday over whether Gov. Jerry Brown's overtures to five Republican senators to support his budget plan had utterly failed, or whether suspension of their talks is merely a temporary setback.
Whatever the case, it appeared that Brown's hopes of placing $10 billion-plus a year in tax extensions on a June 7 special-election ballot had been dashed. Even if a budget agreement eventually emerges, the election will almost certainly be delayed.
That would seem to be a minor hiccup, but having an election on June 7 before the summer doldrums set in has been one of several conditions Brown hoped would give his plan its best chance of winning voter support.
He also wants at least a veneer of bipartisan support, no active business opposition, a simple yes or no on a single measure, and perhaps an all-mail election to create an optimal climate for what would be, under any circumstances, an iffy situation asking voters to raise taxes by about $1,000 per family per year in the midst of the worst recession in 80 years.
Several of the five Republican senators who had been negotiating with Brown said they hit a rock wall because he and presumably other Democrats and powerful union allies balked at major public pension reforms and a tight spending limit. The senators also wanted to cut the extension of temporary income, sales and car taxes, first enacted in 2009, from the five years Brown wants to some briefer period.
It's still possible Brown and the GOP senators could do a deal that wouldn't lose Democratic votes, but the calendar is a factor. Were the tax election after June 30, for instance, advocates could no longer call them "extensions" and would have to acknowledge, which they are loath to do, that they are increases.
And what if there is no deal? Does Brown have a Plan B?
He and Democrats may try to bypass Republicans and place some tax increases on the ballot with simple-majority legislative votes. It's a legally problematic tactic, but one that might put pressure on Republicans.
Earlier, Brown had said that if taxes are blocked, he wants legislators to whack spending by many billions of dollars, hitting schools especially hard. That would underscore the impact on public services of not having new revenues, but Democrats would shy away from a doomsday scenario.
Brown and Democrats could pass a budget that still assumes new revenues, and then launch an initiative- petition drive to place the taxes before voters next fall, but even were it successful, the delay would sharply reduce revenues for the 2011-12 fiscal year.
Finally, they could resort to the accounting gimmicks, deferrals, backdoor loans and other devices that have been prominent in recent budgets, even though Brown insists he would not countenance that approach.