Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Governor hoping that some term-limited Republicans will soften anti-tax stance

SACRAMENTO — Republican state Sen. Dick Ackerman bridles when it's suggested he might suddenly soften his anti-tax principles and vote for a tax increase because he's term-limited and not worried about re-election.

Not even a plum appointment by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger could sway him, said the former Senate minority leader from Orange County, who is a bit mystified that he was called back last week into a lame-duck special session to tackle an $11.2 billion budget shortfall.

"My recommendation to the administration was they wouldn't get anywhere with this crew," Ackerman said referring to GOP caucuses in the Senate and Assembly, which has 16 term-limited Republicans on their way out in less than a month. "I just don't see anybody changing their mind."

In reversing his own long-stated anti-tax position by saying the crisis is a "revenue problem" and not a "spending problem," Schwarzenegger called for a series of tax increases that would bring in more than $5 billion a year, as well as $4.5 billion in spending cuts, to balance the budget before the next legislative session begins early next month.

Schwarzenegger proposed a temporary 1.5 cent increase to the state sales tax, while applying it to services such as vehicle repairs, appliance and furniture repairs, veterinarian services and greens fees for playing golf.

He's also proposing a 10 percent tax on the extraction of oil within the state, and a 5-cent-per-drink Advertisementtax on alcohol. His plan also includes a $12 increase in annual vehicle registration fees.

Democrats lauded his new emphasis on trying to capture revenues to fill the deep budget hole, though interest groups are already lining up against the more than $4 billion in spending cuts he's proposing.

Schwarzenegger's special session gambit is born of a genuine crisis, observers said, but it's premised on an unrealistic expectation that with the elections behind them, some Republicans would agree to increasing taxes. That's misreading his own party's DNA, they said.

"The theory is that now that the election is over, some Republicans have less to lose," said Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association. "But looking at the individuals involved, I don't see them turning. If the Republican Party doesn't stand for holding the line on tax increases, it stands for nothing."

The pathways to success appear narrow for Schwarzenegger: He can either persuade a handful of term-limited Republicans to end their careers with a vote on tax increases or count on the votes from incoming GOP lawmakers fresh off victory in what has been an otherwise devastating year for their party.

The safest time to show political courage is just after an election, said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics and a GOP consultant. "If there's a time to do it, this is it, the moment after a successful campaign is a moment a legislator is least worried about voters. But every day forward is a day closer to the next election."

If there's a single guarantee in modern Republican politics, however, it is that Republicans who have any further political aspirations are writing their own political death warrant by voting for a tax increase, Schnur said. That even applies to those lawmakers being termed out who may seek a statewide office or remain viable in local government.

"You gotta win a primary before you win a general," he said. "There's nothing scarier (to a Republican) than a primary threat from the far right."

How they ultimately react to the gauntlet thrown down by Schwarzenegger could depend on what Republicans absorbed from the election returns, said Larry Gerston, a political science professor at San Jose State.

"If they read the election results as just an aberration and they're safe in the future, they may just play hardball," Gerston said. "Or, if they see it as a window into the future and that next time they'll lose if they continue to play obstinate, it may be a good time to diplomatically fold their tent and play ball."

Republicans lost a net of two seats in the Assembly and appear to have lost a seat in the Senate — much less damage than could have been expected in a landslide for Democratic President-elect Barack Obama, who won the state by 24 points.

"The fact that Assembly Republicans lost a net two seats in this climate is a miracle," Coupal said. "I see them as emboldened, and not at all chastened."

But Republicans won four of the Assembly seats by a total of 11,000 votes — a signal that their districts may be drifting demographically toward Democrats.

Ackerman said they should "wait until next year and start over," but added that he doubts a fresh start will translate to any more of an appetite among Republicans to start raising taxes.

"The new people on our side," he said, "are probably even stronger on not using taxes to balance the budget."

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