SACRAMENTO -- If the question has now turned from whether Gov.-elect Jerry Brown will seek a tax hike to how he can pull it off, the answer is still far from known.
How Brown brings a tax vote to the people is a tangled question filled with unlimited traps and complications, starting with the need to bring Republicans and Democrats together, stave off revolts from his own allies who will feel a lot of pain as his plans emerge, and persuade a skeptical public.
It is such a sensitive issue, that Brown has refused to talk directly about raising taxes as he has toured the state holding forth on the growing fiscal crisis.
Instead, he has built his case by laying out the grim realities, saying the "day of reckoning" has arrived in which a $28 billion budget deficit cannot be solved through gimmicks such as borrowing from the future.
As Brown said at his forum at UCLA last week, the path to putting forth an initiative -- presumably one seeking tax hikes -- has to be done "very carefully and very thoughtfully because I want to make sure we succeed."
Brown announced last week he wanted his upcoming budget to be completed 60 days after legislators receive it on Jan. 10, his strongest signal yet that he wants to have a tax question before the voters by the spring. To do so, Brown, who takes office on Jan. 3, will need a two-thirds vote from the Legislature.
That means he will need two Republicans from the Assembly and three in the Senate -- assuming he gets the support of all Democrats, who have the majority in both legislative houses -- to jump on board. To reach that level of consensus, Brown will have to calibrate his entreaties with the precision of a clockmaker.
It's a Rubik's cube, three-dimensional chess and a game of chicken all rolled together.
"It's a triple bank shot and he'll have to execute it perfectly," said Steve Maviglio, a Democratic operative who worked under former Gov. Gray Davis and ex-Speaker Fabian Nunez.
Any talk of new taxes appears, on the face of it, insurmountable, given the hard line positions of the two Republican leaders, Sen. Bob Dutton, R-Rancho Cucamonga, and Assemblywoman Connie Conway, R-Visalia. Every member of their caucuses has signed pledges against increased taxes.
But concessions from Democrats such as major program cuts, coupled with reforms that, for instance, would lower pension benefits for public employee labor unions, could be a path to win enough Republican votes to give it a two-thirds passage, observers said.
"It'll require creativity," said Daniel Conway, a lobbyist for the California Restaurant Association. "This is where Brown will have to show his strength. You will see a lot of elements woven into this. It's hard math, a tough needle to thread. But Brown could be the guy to pull it off."
One question is whether Democrats would accept the kind of reforms Republicans are seeking to get their support.
Some say Democrats will have to offer some trade-offs, such as pension reform, to win Republican support. Others say a hard-hitting budget, in which Democrats agree to billions in cuts, will be trade-off enough.
"To think that after making big cuts, then you also have to worry about giving goodies to Republicans to buy their vote is ludicrous," said one Democratic consultant who asked not to be identified to be able to speak freely. "If a budget that in fact does very hard things for Democrats isn't good enough for Republicans, then the whole voting population will know it's Republicans who refuse to participate."
One potential leverage Brown can use to pick off Republican votes is to appeal to their future prospects under a new law that will allow the top two finishers in a primary to move onto the general election, regardless of party. The "top-two" primary gets its first significant test in 2012 and would test a handful of Republicans in closely divided districts, in which a more moderate electorate could punish lawmakers who vote in an overly partisan manner.
Brown might be able to convince those lawmakers that a vote against funding public education, for instance, could be career threatening.
But cutting a deal in Sacramento that enables Brown to put a tax hike on the ballot is far different from selling it to a skeptical public. Brown himself pointed to voters' rejection of Proposition 21 last month -- which would have raised car fees by $18 to support parks -- as the most recent evidence that voters don't want their taxes raised. But focus groups conducted in the fall showed the problem was not the tax itself but voters' belief that the money would not be used for parks.
If voters had greater assurances, from voices from both sides of the political aisle, that the money would be well spent, they could be open to a tax hike. And it has to be straightforward, said Andrew Acosta, a Democratic political consultant.
"The package (Gov. Arnold) Schwarzenegger put together in 2009 was too confusing, too complicated, had too many moving parts," Acosta said, referring to the five ballot measures, Propositions 1A-1E, that went down in flames. The issues were an extension of taxes, a spending cap, borrowing lottery funds, and shifting payments from a mental health fund and a fund for poor children.
Opposition to the package came from conservative taxpayer groups, who opposed the tax increase, and Democratic labor allies, who opposed the spending cap. Turnout was only 27.5 percent, a reflection, analysts said at the time, of a citizenry disenchanted with politicians for what they perceived to be phony solutions.
"Brown and his people have to come up with something simpler, smarter and balanced," Acosta said. "No more Arnold running around with a pair of scissors saying he's going to cut the state's credit card. Voters aren't buying it any more."
So, all Brown has to do is bring Democrats and Republicans together, find a way to keep funded opposition out of the picture, and persuade enough voters that the state indeed needs some help.
Contact Steven Harmon at 916-441-2101.