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Polling, campaign strategy forced initiative deal

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POSTED March 15, 2012 9:05 p.m.


 

SACRAMENTO (AP) — In less than a week, Gov. Jerry Brown went from resignation over the prospect of facing multiple tax initiatives on the November ballot to announcing a key political merger with a competing proposal pushed by a teachers union.

The deal announced Wednesday will give voters a clear choice and make it easier for supporters to state their case to voters. The governor and his allies were fast-tracking the new initiative proposal to meet a June 28 deadline to qualify it for the general election ballot.

Efforts to strike a compromise intensified last week after a public opinion poll found that just a slim majority of likely voters supported the governor's plan. Yet at the same time, the California Federation of Teachers, the union pushing the competing millionaires' tax, could not persuade Democratic lawmakers or other key allies and financial backers to join their side.

Both sides say their desire for a unified initiative to temporarily raise the state's sales and income taxes ultimately came down to a shared interest to generate more revenue for schools and to help close the state's $9.2 billion deficit. They also wanted to avoid a messy political fight that would have confused and turned off voters.

"We were looking at a very difficult ballot, and you heard from us on that. You heard me say a circular firing squad because it just wasn't going to be something we were going to be successful in," said Brown's political adviser, Steve Glazer. "Unless we had a course change, we were vulnerable to failing to achieve the important goals we had set out to accomplish."

The Public Policy Institute of California found that just 52 percent of likely voters would support Brown's tax plan even before anti-tax groups waged their own opposition campaign. The next day, supporters of the millionaires tax promoted an internal poll showing their initiative had far greater appeal.

"I think No. 1, the governor and the legislative leaders saw that we were committed to this," said Joshua Pechthalt, president of the California Federation of Teachers. "We were not backing down."

The union is much smaller than the powerful California Teachers Association, which supported the governor's plan. The federation was joined in its effort, known as the Restoring California Coalition, by the advocacy group Courage Campaign.

The coalition took its internal poll to the Capitol but could not persuade Democratic lawmakers to join forces. Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, said lawmakers were concerned that money raised by the higher income taxes on millionaires would be dedicated solely to public schools and could not be used for other state-funded programs.

"They make a very strong case. They shared with us their polling; they shared with us how and why they designed it as they did," Leno said. "But our concern was, you may win, but we believe at great risk to health and human services, which I believe can't sustain much more assault."

Last month, a Field Poll found California registered voters were more likely to support the millionaires tax rather than Brown's proposal. The poll found that 63 percent supported the proposal to raise taxes only on millionaires.

Brown's plan had sought a half-cent increase in the state sales tax and raising income taxes on those making more than $250,000 a year.

He and Democratic legislative leaders announced Wednesday they had joined forces with the Restoring California Coalition on a new initiative that is a blend of the two previous proposals.

It seeks to raise the sales tax by a quarter cent for four years, instead of a half cent, starting in 2013. It also would increase income taxes on high earners by an extra 1 percent for individuals making more than $250,000, 2 percent for individuals making more than $300,000 and 3 percent for individuals making more than $500,000. The threshold doubles for joint filers.

The higher income tax brackets would last for seven years.

If passed by voters in November, the tax hikes would raise anywhere from $7.1 billion to $9 billion a year at their height, according to the state Department of Finance.

For the governor, it also was essential to funnel some of the new tax revenue to local law enforcement as a way to fund his realignment of the state prison system, which is sending lower-level offenders to county jails. The new initiative would be a constitutional amendment, meaning the Legislature could not redirect the portion of the tax revenue that would be preserved for local governments.

This week's compromise between Brown and the coalition led by the teachers union did not clear the election field entirely.

Californians also are likely to confront a competing ballot initiative that would raise income taxes on a sliding scale for nearly all wage-earners to help fund schools. That proposal is backed by wealthy Los Angeles attorney Molly Munger, who so far has refused to back away from putting her initiative on the fall ballot.

"I'd like to think that through private conversations she could join this new coalition," Leno said.

 

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