Jerry Brown’s fuzzy plans for California tax increase initiative

California voters are certain — as certain as anything can be in the topsy-turvy world of politics — to pass judgment on a multibillion-dollar tax increase measure next year, but that kind of measure is very much up in the air.

Gov. Jerry Brown, who tried and failed to persuade some Republicans this year to place taxes on the ballot, has often declared his intention to seek more tax revenues from voters via an initiative in 2012. However, Brown has ducked when asked by reporters what he would include in his tax measure, saying in several ways that he’s still working on it.

He can’t delay much longer, however, because realistically, he and his allies — most likely public employee unions — would have to launch their initiative drive early in 2012 to assure placement on the November ballot. The governor is caught, it appears, in something of a political vice.

The tax package he had sought for months — an extension of broadly based temporary taxes that were enacted in 2009 and expired this year — could be very difficult to pass, as recent polls have indicated.

It would raise income, sales and car taxes by roughly $1,000 per family per year, a hard sell in a state still coping with severe recession and whose residents already shoulder one of the nation’s highest tax burdens.

Voters would, the polls indicate, be more likely to accept taxes that most wouldn’t be paying themselves, at least directly, such as income surtaxes on the rich, taxes on corporations or cigarette taxes.

Those narrower taxes, however, probably would not be sufficient to raise the $10 billion or so a year in revenue that Brown wants to close the state’s chronic budget deficit. And they would engender opposition from business leaders who have signaled that they wouldn’t oppose a broader tax hike such as the one Brown sought this year.

The California Federation of Teachers is adding more fuel — and more uncertainty — to the issue by publicly endorsing a hefty surtax on those with taxable incomes of $1 million or more.

It’s the union’s way of aligning itself with the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations and the populist strategy that the Obama White House and the national Democratic Party are adopting for next year’s elections. They aim to mobilize public resentment against Wall Street and inferentially against Mitt Romney, the investment banker who is the most likely Republican presidential candidate.

In the same vein, some liberal groups are also pursuing an old dream of altering Proposition 13, the 1978 property tax limit, by removing business property from its protections.

But Brown, who was governor when Proposition 13 passed and had to finesse his opposition to it, is making it very clear that he won’t go down that path. Once burned, twice shy, as it were.

Dan Walters’ Sacramento Bee columns on state politics are syndicated by the Scripps Howard News Service.

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