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Election reforms, tax initiatives shape 2012

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POSTED January 8, 2012 7:57 p.m.

SACRAMENTO  (AP) — While California is likely to remain out of the presidential spotlight in 2012, the state will undergo dramatic political changes that will alter elections and potentially transform the Legislature. At the same time, voters likely will be asked to consider tax increases even as the state’s economy remains stalled by slow growth and high unemployment.

A host of new election rules, many approved by voters, will affect how campaigns are run and how incumbents fare in a state that is tilting increasingly Democratic and independent. Several groups, as well as Gov. Jerry Brown, hope to capitalize on the public outrage exemplified by the Occupy movement by asking voters to approve new taxes on high income earners and even themselves to help California close its perennial budget gap.

One of the biggest changes could be in the makeup of the state Legislature and perhaps in California’s congressional delegation, the result of an independent citizens commission that took over the authority for drawing districts from state lawmakers. Republicans championed the commission when it was proposed to voters but now are seeking a ballot initiative to overturn the state Senate boundaries because they are not happy with the resulting maps.

The new political districts also are throwing incumbent state lawmakers into a tailspin as they figure out where they must live to run for office, what other offices to seek or, in a handful of cases, decide whether to run against an opponent from the same political party. Congressional candidates do not have to live in the district in which they are running.

As Republicans focus on overturning some of the new districts, Democrats hope to make a play in inland areas of the state long dominated by Republicans, including a challenge to Rep. Mary Bono Mack by Democrat Raul Ruiz, an emergency room doctor.

California voters also will face the first widespread use of the state’s new primary system, which allows the top two vote-getters in June primaries to advance to the November general election, even if they are from the same party. This replaces a system in which the top vote-getter from each party advanced.

The new primary system and independent redistricting were intended to promote more centrist candidates to state legislative seats. The idea is that candidates would have to appeal to a wider spectrum of voters, rather than just zealots within a particular party, and thus take more moderate stances.

Brown and his predecessor, former Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, complained that lawmakers of both parties are far too partisan, making compromise nearly impossible.

After a year that saw mounting public frustration over income inequity, Gov. Jerry Brown is hoping to capitalize on discontent over California’s deep spending cuts, especially to public schools and higher education. He said he wants to force Californians to choose between the education and social programs they say they support and their desire for lower taxes.

“Here’s the dilemma: People don’t want cuts in education and health care and policing, but they don’t want to pay taxes, either,” Brown said in a recent interview with The Associated Pres. “And there’s a type of cognitive dissonance where people want incompatible objectives. So the challenge for today’s politics is to clarify the choices.”

Brown’s plan calls for a sliding scale of higher income tax rates, starting at $250,000 a year, and an extra half-cent sales tax, which would raise about $7 billion a year for five years.

First, he must deal with other groups that are seeking similar ballot-box solutions. If numerous tax proposals make the November ballot, the resulting confusion could doom them all.

Brown is trying to persuade other Democratically aligned groups to drop their proposals to boost taxes on the wealthy, such as a separate initiative supported by the California Federation of Teachers and the Courage Campaign to add a 3 percent surtax on incomes greater than $1 million and 5 percent on incomes greater than $2 million.

About 60 percent of the estimated $6 billion a year that measure would raise would go toward education, with the rest going to counties for their increased burden in paying more for aid to seniors and the disabled, law enforcement and child care programs.

Supporters of the so-called “millionaire’s tax” dislike Brown’s approach because it increases the sales tax, which affects people at all income levels.

“This tax places responsibility for restoring funding on those who have been benefiting the most and does not put it on the backs of working-class and middle-class families who have been suffering, particularly during this economic downturn,” said Joshua Pechthalt, president of the teachers federation.

The group’s pollster, Ben Tulchin, said the timing is right for the millionaire’s tax, although it’s hard to say whether the current anti-Wall Street sentiment will hold all the way until November. He said about two-thirds of likely voters he polled supported a plan to raise taxes exclusively on millionaires.

After years of budget cuts, California voters may even be softening toward taxing themselves, said Molly Munger, co-director of the Advancement Project for preschool age children and daughter of Charles Munger, a longtime financial partner of Warren Buffett. She is sponsoring her own ballot initiative to raise taxes primarily on the wealthy.

That plan would impose a sliding scale income tax, from four-tenths of a percentage point on low-income earners to 2.2 percent for couples who make more than $5 million a year — about $428 a year for a household income of $75,000 a year, or $27,266 for one that makes more than $1.5 million, according to proponents. It is projected to generate about $10 billion a year for California schools.

The group’s internal polls show that the first time in decades, California voters indicate that they are willing to tax themselves to make up for lost money in public schools. Californians have been telling pollsters for years that they want the state to invest more for public schools and universities, but often have been unwilling to pay more for them when asked at the ballot box.

Munger said her group has talked with the governor’s office and others seeking to place reforms or tax initiatives on the ballot in 2012, but none was targeting education as narrowly as she hoped.

“We didn’t see anybody else working on getting money directly to the local level, either, as opposed to sending it to Sacramento,” she said. “Our approach avoids the politics of Sacramento and sends money by formula to every child in every school in the state in a very transformative way, and we didn’t see anybody else doing that.”

Republicans are countering with their own challenges to the status quo, even as they fight further decline within the state.

In January, the state Supreme Court will hear arguments on the GOP lawsuit seeking to overturn the Senate maps drawn by the independent commission, which voters approved in response to years of gerrymandering by lawmakers. The new maps give Democrats an opportunity to take a supermajority of the state Senate, which would effectively silence Republican power in the upper house.

Republican-leaning interest groups also have qualified a ballot initiative that would deny public employee unions the right to automatically deduct dues from workers’ paychecks, their chief source of political cash.

It is funded in part by Munger’s brother, GOP donor and Stanford University physicist Charles Munger Jr., and is supported by former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz. Proponents say they want to end pay-to-play politics in California.

Unions thwarted a similar effort in 2005 and are gearing up for an expensive campaign battle in the coming year.

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