SACRAMENTO -- Now that Gov. Jerry Brown has decided to take his tax hike initiative directly to the voters, will Republicans have a role to play in the Legislature in 2012?
Or will they be relegated to little more than a cranky but irrelevant presence in the Capitol, holding fast to their anti-tax ideology but with little to show for it?
Increasingly marginalized with dwindling statewide registration numbers, Republicans have already lost leverage on the budget and may soon lose it on taxes if new district lines leave them short of a simple one-third minority.
Perhaps the Republicans' last chance to have a legislative impact was in talks with the governor last spring, but that blew up in their faces when they wouldn't budge on allowing a temporary tax extension to go before voters.
"They're taking a stand on principle, but the price of principle is exclusion from decision-making," said Jack Pitney, an ex-GOP Congressional operative who now teaches government and political science at Claremont McKenna College. "For the time being Republicans have very little influence in the Capitol."
The state GOP has been partially incapacitated this year after voters approved a ballot measure in November 2010 allowing budgets to be passed by a majority -- rather than a two-thirds -- vote. That allowed Democrats to approve this year's budget -- on time for a change -- without a single Republican vote.
Republicans, however, still have the power to block taxes because Democrats don't have a two-thirds majority in either house. California law requires supermajority in the Legislature to pass taxes
But even that point of leverage for Republicans may become obsolete if the newly drawn legislative districts hold and provide Democrats the opening to capture four Senate and Assembly seats -- enough for the magical two-thirds majority -- as many political observers predict.
"Republicans are having difficulty because of their low registration," said Allan Hoffenblum, a former GOP consultant who co-edits the California Target Book, which handicaps legislative races.
Democrats dominate Republicans in voter registration, 44 percent to 31 percent, while 20 percent decline to state their preferences.
"Why do they think they can pick up one third of the seats if they haven't even got one third of voter registration?" Hoffenblum asked. "The problem is that the Republican Party is becoming a regional party, not a statewide party. There are huge areas, particularly but not exclusively, along the coast where they used to elect Republicans but don't anymore."
The state Republican Party has put a premium on trying to overturn the new district lines, drawn by a citizens committee, though even that effort is faltering. In late October, the state Supreme Court threw out the state party's lawsuit.
Republicans are awaiting word on whether they've turned in enough valid signatures to place a referendum on the November 2012 ballot aimed at forcing a redrawing of the new district lines created by an independent commission. By the time signatures are counted, though, it may be too late to change the district lines for the June primaries.
That leaves the direct vote of the people -- on initiatives and referenda -- as their only true recourse, said Tom Del Becarro, the state GOP chairman.
"It seems that if any significant reforms will hit Sacramento, it will only be through the direct ballot process," said Del Becarro, the former Contra Costa County GOP chairman. "We need to concentrate our efforts. We have no other choice at this point but to go through the initiative process."
Among the ballot measures Republicans and their conservative political allies are pursuing, one would prohibit labor unions from using members' dues for political contributions and prohibit unions from contributing to candidates or parties. Another would institute a strict spending cap on the Legislature.
It's a tall order in an increasingly blue state, which voted in Democrats to fill all the statewide offices in 2010 and has elected Democratic legislative majorities in all but a handful of the last 50 years.
Brown, who assiduously courted Republicans last spring in the failed effort to send a tax measure to voters, effectively wrote them off at his news conference last week when asked if he was willing to negotiate with Republicans to do the same next year.
"What's to negotiate?" he asked.
The governor said he has chosen to go directly to voters next fall with his $7 billion tax initiative -- through a temporary half-cent sales tax and an income hike on individuals making $250,000 a year or more -- because Republicans have proven reflexively inflexible on taxes.
"As far as I can ascertain, Republicans to a person are committed to not let people vote on a tax, much less vote (themselves) on taxes," Brown said.
The handful of Republicans who were in talks with Brown this year sought to curb pensions, regulations and spending in exchange for a vote to allow the tax question to get on the ballot last spring. But Brown said the "ask" was too high and shut down the talks.
Republicans proclaimed victory at the time, saying they'd blocked taxes. But their gamble -- to ask for the moon rather than something Brown could have agreed to -- could backfire if voters approve a tax hike next fall and they get nothing out of it.
"Republicans in the Legislature remind me of the Palestinians -- they never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity," said Patrick Dorinson, a former spokesman for the state GOP who now writes the Cowboy Libertarian blog. "It's not about giving up principle, it's about getting what you can, especially when you're in the minority. You've got to use your power wisely."
Republicans won't be completely shut out at the Capitol, said Bill Whalen, a fellow at the Hoover Institution who wrote speeches for former Gov. Pete Wilson.
"The governor will throw a bone to them once in a while to show bipartisanship," Whalen said. "There'll be moments when he signs their bills. But the big picture and what matters most is the issue of taxes -- and that's a matter for the ballot."
Brown said he'll continue to keep his door open to Republicans and may even attend some of their New Year's receptions, "and if they're willing to buy, I'll have a drink with them."