The California Legislature is set to convene amid uncertainty over the fate of Gov. Jerry Brown's budget proposal and warnings by majority Democrats that they might try to bypass Republican lawmakers to call a special election on taxes.
The most immediate question for the session beginning Tuesday remains whether the governor and majority Democrats can get Republican support for an election this summer so voters can decide whether to renew higher sales, personal income and vehicle taxes.
The tax increases were enacted two years ago and are scheduled to expire by July 1.
Senate President Pro Tem Darrel Steinberg, D-Sacramento, said he could schedule a vote soon to force GOP lawmakers to make a decision but would not give up on a deal as long as the Democratic governor wants to keep negotiating.
Talks stalled on Friday after Senate Republicans released a list of 53 budget reforms and policy changes they want in exchange for backing Brown's tax initiative. The governor hopes to solve the
$26.6 billion deficit by balancing the tax extensions with about $14 billion in spending cuts and fund transfers, some of which he signed into law last week.
One of the Republicans' proposed reforms would limit an extension of the tax hikes to 18 months instead of five years, as Democrats want. Another would let Californians vote to reduce public pensions and set a state spending cap.
The rest of the GOP wish-list covers a broad range of proposals including converting public employee pensions to 401(k)-style plans, tying future state spending to inflation, restoring funding
for county fairs and moving next year's presidential primary to March, rather than June as Democrats would like.
The list represents the first substantive move from Republicans, who have been depicted throughout budget talks as a "party of no'' that opposes the governor's plan but does not offer alternatives to the spending cuts and taxes.
Brown met with individual lawmakers over the weekend, but on Monday his office said no progress was made.
If bipartisan support for the special election fails, Democrats have floated the idea of trying to get it on the ballot by a simple majority vote. Should that succeed, the vote almost certainly would
be challenged in court because legislation related to taxes and ballot measures require a two-thirds majority.
The state Assembly and Senate each need yes-votes from two Republicans to reach the two-thirds majority. But Democrats have shown declining optimism for a bipartisan solution, having passed
most cuts so far with little and sometimes no GOP support.
The spending cuts signed into law so far include an estimated $7.4 billion from the state's welfare-to-work program, services for the developmentally disabled and health insurance for the poor.
Brown also wants to save money by shifting a host of responsibilities to local governments, believing cities and counties can handle them more efficiently.
Most contentious of the cuts that remain is a proposal to eliminate the 400 redevelopment agencies throughout the state, a move the governor's office estimates will save $1.7 billion.
Critics say the agencies rob schools, law enforcement, fire departments and other community services of local tax revenue, but many local government officials praise them as one of their best
tools for kick-starting construction projects.
The bill fell short by one Republican vote in the Assembly.
Democrats also are considering an all-cuts budget, which would include billions of dollars more from schools, or an independent initiative on the tax extensions for a special election this