As Gov. Jerry Brown presses Republicans for a mid-September election on taxes, a major Democratic labor ally warned Wednesday that going to the electorate is "terribly fraught with peril."
David Kieffer, executive director of the Service Employees International Union California State Council, instead wants lawmakers to reach a bipartisan agreement to extend taxes in the Legislature.
He said his group is not obligated to finance a fall tax campaign and would have to weigh that multimillion-dollar expense against spending in 2012 legislative races.
"It's my members' money," Kieffer told The Bee's Capitol Bureau. "And if I went to my members and my board and said we can either play heavily and do good politics in 2012 or we can lose an election with this money, I think I don't even have to pose the question to get the answer."
Brown said Tuesday he is eyeing a mid-September special election in which voters would decide whether to extend higher taxes on sales and vehicles, as well as reinstate an income tax surcharge.
The main negotiating hurdle, Brown and GOP lawmakers said, is whether to approve a funding bridge that maintains higher sales and vehicle taxes until the election. They are close on other items, such as a spending cap and pension cuts for new employees.
The idea of having a special election remains popular among voters, including those who oppose the taxes. A Public Policy Institute of California poll showed last week that 62 percent of likely voters support going to the ballot.
Kieffer said his polling shows only half of voters support extending higher taxes, even though a greater share is opposed to further spending cuts. He said one problem is that taxes won't be framed on the ballot as a choice between taxes and cuts.
Kieffer also said a 2011 election would have low turnout of voters, whom he called elites.
"I think it's highly likely (the taxes) would lose," Kieffer said.
Brown promised during his campaign last year that he would not raise taxes without a vote of the people. Press secretary Gil Duran said Wednesday that the governor remains committed to that pledge.
"The people are the ultimate authority," Duran said. "The governor made a promise during the campaign, and he is not wavering from it. Every person and organization will have to act according to their own conscience, but the governor's going to make good on his promise even if he has to stand alone to do it."
Kieffer said he is opposed to an "all cuts" solution. If lawmakers do not approve taxes, he prefers that they find other non-tax revenues often dubbed gimmicks to bridge the state's remaining $9.6 billion deficit.
"Arnold (Schwarzenegger) didn't do every gimmick. There's a bottomless pit of gimmicks," Kieffer said.
SEIU California represents 700,000 members, including In-Home Supportive Services caregivers, local government workers and about 95,000 state employees. It also includes some private sector employees.
The group opposed a 2009 ballot measure to extend the same taxes beyond 2011 because that proposal was tied to a long-term spending cap.
Besides SEIU, likely funders of a tax election include the California Teachers Association and public safety unions. Labor groups spent more than $28 million on independent expenditures last year helping Brown defeat Republican Meg Whitman.
Kieffer has devoted his attention toward 2012 legislative races and suggested that a ripe opportunity exists to defeat conservative candidates under a new "top two" primary system.
While the labor union typically focuses on Democratic races, Kieffer said it would devote more attention toward electing moderate Republicans in red districts. He said SEIU would even discourage Democrats from running in places they can't win to avoid taking votes from moderate GOP candidates.
"I think we have to discourage Democrats from spending money and getting out there and getting engaged and trying to create a viable option, because the only real options are going to be in the Republican Party," he said of districts with heavy GOP registration.
Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, said that strategy can cut both ways. Business groups have helped moderate Democrats in the past.
"Two can play at that game, and if you look at the polling and precipitous drop in sympathy for public employee unions, I would say SEIU is in more trouble in Democratic districts than Republicans are in their districts," Coupal said.