By Julia Cheever
Bay City News Service
Gov. Jerry Brown sounded an optimistic note in a speech in San Francisco Thursday about solving California's budget crisis, while warning that a failure by the state Legislature to reach a deal would bring severe cuts.
"It's very hard to herd the cats and get irreconcilable opposites to meet on common ground," Brown told an audience of apartment builders at the annual Pacific Coast Builders Conference at the Moscone Center in San Francisco.
"But I think we have a path forward and I think we can reach it," he said. "We're not there yet but I'm confident we can get there."
The Democratic governor is seeking a special election this fall to ask Californians to approve tax extensions to fill a $9.6 billion budget deficit.
He needs the votes of four Republican legislators to set an election, but thus far has not been able to win those votes.
Brown said he may seek a voter initiative if the Legislature doesn't set an election. But if a tax extension is not enacted through either process, "we must continue to retrench. That's not pretty," the governor said.
Brown reiterated his often-repeated vow that he won't use what he called "smokescreens" or gimmicks employed by previous governors to balance the state budget.
If California's education, infrastructure and social service system is going to decline, "we ought to do it with our eyes open," he said.
Brown, 73, who succeeded former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in January, previously served stints as state attorney general, Oakland mayor, and governor in an earlier tenure from 1975 to 1983.
He told the audience he has learned patience over those decades.
"Patience is important," Brown said.
"I was impatient earlier in my career. I ran for president after 14 months," he said, referring to his first unsuccessful presidential campaign during his second year as governor in 1976.
Now, Brown said, he believes "you've got to keep at it."
"Don't let things deter you. Build change brick by brick," he said.
An audience member asked Brown whether California is "fundamentally flawed" and queried, "Do we have the tools to fundamentally fix California's fiscal system?"
Brown answered, "I get very wary when we talk about fundamental and fundamentalism."
He said he believes in incremental changes and improvements, but said, "We don't change the body politic in a fundamental way."
Brown needs the votes of two Republican Assembly members and two Republican state senators to create the two-thirds majority needed to set a special election, as well as to pass temporary "bridge" taxes that would be in effect until the election.
Under his proposal, voters would be asked to approve a continuation of a 1 percent sales tax increase and a 0.05 percent vehicle license fee increase for up to five years. Those increases are scheduled to expire on June 30.
Voters would be also be asked to reinstate an already-expired 0.25 percent personal income tax surcharge for four years beginning in 2012.
With those tax and fee extensions, Brown predicted, "We'll be out of the woods in four or five years."