SACRAMENTO -- The state's largest business group will provide financial support to Republicans and pro-business Democrats who vote to put a tax extension on the ballot, California Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Allan Zaremberg signaled on Thursday.
He stopped short of endorsing Gov. Jerry Brown's proposal but said the Chamber supports a "comprehensive budget solution" that resolves the budget crisis.
"There are going to be, I don't care if you're a Democrat or Republican, some difficult votes that people are going to have to make," Zaremberg said in a briefing with a handful of reporters. "Some are going to be subject to more criticism than others. ... It's important for them to know there's going to be support for them."
A fear among many Republicans and some Democrats is that voters in conservative districts might retaliate against legislators who even put a question of taxes on the ballot. Financial support from the Chamber could help them explain their vote in the next campaign.
The Democratic-led Legislature is working on proposals to close a $26.6 billion deficit. Brown is seeking $12.5 billion in spending reductions and wants to place on the ballot a question of whether to extend for another five years current tax rates on purchases, income and vehicles.
Though Democrats can pass a budget on a majority vote, they still need a two-thirds vote -- hence, the need for two Republicans in either legislative chamber -- to send a tax question to the ballot. To place it on a June ballot, Brown has asked legislators to finish work by March 10.
In a statement, Brown said he welcomed the support from the Chamber.
"It is apparent that momentum is now building for a bipartisan budget solution that includes spending cuts and a temporary extension of current taxes," Brown said.
Most Republicans have balked at the tax proposal, though signs of compromise have begun to emerge. Earlier this week, Assembly Speaker John Perez said he is open to pension and regulatory reforms that Republicans have said must be included in any deal that asks for a vote on taxes.
A dozen Republicans have been criticized by outside groups for refusing to join an anti-tax legislative group, the Taxpayer Caucus, which has vowed to oppose a vote on placing a tax extension on the ballot.
One of the dozen, Sen. Bob Huff, R-Diamond Bar, holds the second most powerful position in the Senate GOP as the caucus chairman. He is being targeted by the popular conservative John and Ken radio show after refusing to join the group and saying he's looking for a deal that can bring in business-friendly reforms.
Brown's budget received an endorsement from the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, though the leader of that organization said he wanted to see specific reforms as part of the overall package.
Brown himself has recently shifted his position, saying he will consider pension and other reforms after earlier saying he didn't want to weigh down his proposal with extraneous issues that could draw opposition from key supporters, such as labor.
The state chamber won't weigh in with an endorsement until after its March 11 board meeting, and after it sees the Legislature's final product.
If the chamber winds up aiding Brown in a campaign, it will be a remarkable turnaround from last fall.
The chamber endorsed Brown's Republican opponent, Meg Whitman, in the fall, and had a run-in with Brown's campaign over a short-lived television ad it ran attacking Brown. Zaremberg said he has yet to speak with Brown, though the organization has spoken with Brown's staff.
Brown helped thaw the chilly relations when he chose not to include targeted taxes in his proposal, such as oil or tobacco tax hikes that Democrats have sought for years.
Still, Zaremberg did not offer direct praise for Brown's performance in office, though he suggested he appreciated Brown's plan to go to the voters.
"He's put a proposal that the legislative analyst says will give us a balanced budget," he said. "The governor is following through on a commitment that helped him get elected and that resonated with the voters, and I appreciate that very much. And I think the public appreciates it, too."
The chamber supported the Legislature's special election package in 2009, which included a two-year extension on tax increases that the Legislature had approved and a spending cap, among other ballot measures.
Zaremberg supports a similar approach, but said that whatever the Legislature produces should be viewed by voters as an attempt to solve the budget crisis and improve the economy.
He said that he would support pension reform, but only if it is "presented in a way that it's helping to solve the budget crisis.
"If you're going to go to the ballot, you want it to pass, so you want to have a solution that doesn't bring everything down," he said. "I think you keep that in mind, whether it be on the reform side or revenue side."
Asked to define what a comprehensive solution is, Zaremberg half-joked, saying, "comprehensive is anything that gets 27 and 54 votes," referring to the two-thirds threshold. "That's a little flip, but comprehensive is really what gets bipartisan support."
An all-cuts budget, he said, is not a comprehensive solution because it does not have bipartisan support.