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Budget tactics threaten rift among top Democrats

February 8, 2011 |  6:00 am

It has been the $12-billion strategic question ever since Gov. Jerry Brown announced that he would seek renewed taxes to balance the budget: Should Democrats describe, in gruesome detail, just how ugly an all-cuts budget would be in order to spur public support for taxes?

The answer, it seems, is threatening to create a rift among the ruling Democrats, who control both chambers of the Legislature.

In the state Senate, President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) publicly toyed last week with passing an all-cuts budget, and then giving voters an opportunity to restore popular programs by approving more taxes in a June election. His caucus has already requested that the state’s nonpartisan budget analyst draft a list of $25 billion in draconian spending reductions that could be used to balance the books.

But, in an interview in his office Monday, Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez (D-Los Angeles) dismissed such an approach, saying it would “lack credibility” with a skeptical public and prove politically unworkable in the Capitol.

“I don’t think you get 12 votes for that in either house,” Pérez said of the 80-member Assembly and 40-member Senate. “I don’t think there are Republican votes for that. I don’t think there are Democratic votes for that. So I think actually engaging that conversation really distracts us.”

And without a pathway to passage, “it’s purely an academic exercise,” Pérez said. “With all due respect to the academy, I’m more interested in taking time in a practical way to get to the budget solutions” that Brown has proposed.

Simmering tensions between the two leaders emerged last summer, as Pérez and Steinberg took different strategic stances during a lengthy budget standoff with former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Steinberg, a consummate consensus-builder, pressed to strike a quick agreement. But Pérez proposed -– and rallied support for -– a budget borrowing scheme as unworkable as Schwarzenegger’s austere budget, in an effort to drive the governor more toward the political middle. Negotiations slowed to crawl. And the budget set a new record for tardiness, winning approval 100 days into the fiscal year.

This year, Brown has proposed to cut spending by $12.5 billion and raise $14 billion in taxes, with the first $2 billion of the levies going to fund K-12 schools, not shrink the deficit. Brown is asking legislators to approve his proposed cuts by March and place the tax question on a June special election ballot.

Thus far, GOP legislators, who have refused to consider taxes, have proved his greatest stumbling block. Any Democratic infighting would be an unwanted additional hurdle.

For his part, Brown has remained purposefully vague on the consequences of his tax package failing, saying only that K-12 schools, public safety, universities and the safety net would bear the brunt of any additional cuts.

Pérez insisted the public doesn’t need any more specificity. He said he tells advocates in private meetings to simply double or triple the most painful budgetary reductions, should the June tax measure fail.

“I haven’t had people ask a whole lot of follow-up questions after I’ve said that,” Pérez said.

-- Shane Goldmacher in Sacramento