Dan Walters

Dan Walters: Jerry Brown struggles on three fronts on state budget

Published: Wednesday, May. 23, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 3A
Last Modified: Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2013 - 8:16 pm

As the state budget's deficit widens, Gov. Jerry Brown is being thrust into a three-front political battle.

He must not only persuade voters to pass his sales and income tax package, but, implicitly, persuade them to reject a rival tax measure just for schools.

Meanwhile, Brown is pressing liberal Democratic legislators to ignore their political DNA by making deeper cuts in health and welfare programs, not only to close the deficit but to bolster appeals to voters for new taxes.

"It's not easy," Brown told hundreds of business and civic figures gathered Tuesday in Sacramento for the annual Host Breakfast.

"We're getting there," Brown continued. "We're making the cuts. But we also need the revenues."

Brown had been cultivating business groups to support his original tax plan, but they cooled when he shifted gears to satisfy rivals on the left, reducing the sales tax element and sharply boosting income taxes on high-income taxpayers, including many attendees at Tuesday's event.

Despite Brown's assertion, cuts in welfare benefits, medical care for the poor, child care, developmental disability services, and in-home care for the aged and disabled are a tough sell among liberal legislators who support those services.

Brown's new budget counts on those reductions to narrow the deficit by more than $1.5 billion but legislative leaders have said that softening their impact is their highest priority, characterizing them as "life-and-death" issues.

Past efforts to make cuts in those areas have been difficult. Most involve federal funds as well as the state's money, and some have run afoul of Washington's unwillingness to grant waivers, while others have been blocked in court.

Brown's latest health and welfare cuts, unveiled last week, got an initial airing later Tuesday in a Senate budget subcommittee. Democrats' reluctance to slash services was evident as they heard sometimes tearful opposition from recipients and their advocates.

"You're breaking trust," Marty Omoto of the California Disability Community Action Network told the senators about a $200 million item affecting state hospitals.

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg is leading legislative resistance to health and social service cuts and wants to find other ways of achieving the same fiscal effect, but his list of options is very limited.

It's doubtful whether Democrats could cut K-12 schools, higher education or prisons – the other three big budget categories – by that amount. In fact, Brown is targeting K-12 and colleges for big "trigger" cuts should taxes be rejected. Legislators could gin up some gimmicks, as they often have in the past, but that might alienate voters and lessen chances for the tax package.

Whose ox will be gored? Brown and lawmakers have until June 15 to figure it out.

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