SACRAMENTO -- After working quietly for months with Gov. Jerry Brown, public employee labor groups are beginning to chart their own paths in seeking new taxes.
Last week, the head of the California Teachers Association said he is now focusing on getting a tax increase through the Legislature rather than waiting for a ballot measure. The California Federation of Teachers has signaled it will seek a tax hike on the wealthy. And other labor groups have spoken of submitting measures to increase oil and tobacco taxes.
"The longer it takes for his plan to work, the less patience Brown's allies will have and the more likely they'll be to head off in another direction," said Dan Schnur, director of the Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California.
With anti-tax groups gearing up for their own initiative campaigns to roll back public pensions and other worker benefits, it might be the beginning of what Brown had said would be a "war of all against all."
But while the potential fracturing of Brown's allies could complicate Brown's attempt to close the final $15.4 billion shortfall of what was a $26.6 billion deficit, it could also act as a spur to new negotiations with Republicans, observers said.
After budget talks collapsed last month, Brown has appeared to reset his sights on a fall initiative election, insisting he would keep his campaign promise to not raise taxes without a vote of the people. But, by missing out on a June special election, he has lost the chance to argue that taxes would be a continuation of what voters are already paying.
"You're looking at a calendar where you missed the window to call them extensions, so what do you do?" said Ben Tulchin, a Democratic pollster working with the California Federation of Teachers on the plan to tax the wealthy.
Democrats accused Republicans of deliberately running out the clock to force them into arguing for tax increases, a difficult sale to make.
Labor groups fear that Republicans would extract concessions on worker benefits without paying the price of new taxes by tapping into voters' hostility to tax increases. Polls show support for extending current tax levels drops once they're seen as increases.
Hence the various alternatives now being pursued. Last week, Assembly Speaker John Perez, D-Los Angeles, said he would seek temporary tax extensions through the Legislature, which could be followed by a special election for voters to ratify the tax extensions.
Tulchin said Brown should back off his campaign promise.
"He could easily pivot out of it," he said. "Not to be cynical, but voters get it that campaign promises are meant to be broken. And he can make the legitimate argument that he tried but Republicans stopped him and that now he's got to go the legislative route."
Brown has scoffed at the idea, saying that if he couldn't get four Republicans to vote just to hold an election he didn't see how legislative leaders could get four votes for a straight tax increase. He needs two Republicans in the Senate and two in the Assembly -- and all Democrats -- to get a two-thirds vote required to approve either a vote on taxes or to send a tax to the ballot.
But the governor has recalibrated his position a bit: He has recently started to say he's willing to allow legislators to approve taxes, but only if voters get a chance to ratify them.
Still, his main choice remains to be to go directly to voters for approval of taxes. Brown claims he is close to reeling in some Republicans to approve a special election.
Last week, Brown attended a Republican fundraiser for legislators who made light of being targeted by conservative talk show hosts John and Ken for even considering a vote on taxes. The Los Angeles Times reported that they held photos of themselves stuck to Popsicle sticks, mocking the radio show's "heads on a stick" campaign. Brown said he came away feeling that those GOP lawmakers were poised to work with him.
Brown may be able to convince them it is in their best interest to deal with him rather than to take their chances with labor unions, and all the money and clout they'd bring to a campaign.
"Brown can go to Republicans and say, 'I can't control labor any more,' so he can position himself in the way President Obama is in the federal fight, as above the fray," Schnur said.
At the least, Brown seems intent on having a campaign so that voters can decide their priorities once and for all.
"I want to have a great debate in California," he told educators in Stockton on Thursday. "I want the citizens to study, to think, to debate and resolve and forge a common path forward. What do we stand for?"