SACRAMENTO - Emerging from their state convention eager to put a fresh stamp on California politics, Republicans appear to be in little mood to cooperate with Democrats, especially if it means placing a tax extension on the ballot.
With a new party chairman in place and budget politics roiling the Capitol, Republican party leaders urged an aggressive outreach campaign to bolster their sagging presence in the blue state. But they insisted that an effort to widen their appeal should not be mistaken for a willingness to surrender their anti-tax principles.
One of the party's final acts of the weekend was to pass a resolution opposing tax extensions at all cost, even if they are tied to rollbacks to state employee pensions and business regulations, or a cap on future spending - as a number of Republican legislators have tried to extract in negotiations with Gov. Jerry Brown as he seeks to close a $26.6 billion deficit with a mix of spending cuts and an extension of the 2009 tax increases on sales, income and vehicles.
"If Jerry Brown is passionate about raising taxes on people, he doesn't need Republicans," said Tom Del Beccaro, the newly elected party chairman. "He has the money to put it on the ballot or Democrats can try to force it through. Let's be clear about this: There's only one reason Jerry Brown wants Republican votes. For cover."
Brown needs two Republican votes each in the Senate and Assembly to get a two-thirds vote to put the tax issue on the ballot. Republicans, however, argue he could muscle it through on a majority vote, noting that the Legislative Counsel determined that the Legislature can amend an existing initiative such as the 2009 tax increases. Historically, however, voters have frowned on single-party tax legislation as partisan power plays and Brown has said he wants as much bipartisan buy-in as possible.
That's given five Republican legislators - the so-called GOP 5, who have been in talks with Brown - a certain amount of leverage as they seek concessions. But talks stalled last week when the Republicans complained Brown wasn't taking their demands seriously - and when traditional Democratic allies accused them of overreaching.
Discussions don't appear to be on a good footing as the Legislature returns to the Capitol this week to take another stab at closing the deficit.
State Sen. Sam Blakeslee, R-San Luis Obispo, one of the GOP 5, said that neither Brown nor his office had returned a call he made to him last week.
"It really raises a question as to whether or not the governor was serious about embracing a serious set of reform compromises we put forward," said Blakeselee, the only member of the GOP 5 to attend the convention.
Brown's office said it had not received a call from Blakeslee on the tax extension talks.
"We're not aware that Mr. Blakeslee has attempted to communicate with the governor about the budget in the past week, and that's what the governor is solely focused on," said Gil Duran, Brown's spokesman. "We'll stay focused on continuing to talk to Republican legislators and the Democratic side. It takes a lot of discussion to make any headway."
Despite the poisonous relationship between the two parties, the path to discussions may have been enhanced when delegates rejected a proposal that would have given party leaders the power to endorse Republican candidates in the open primaries that begin in 2012. That proposal was seen as a way for party leaders to retaliate against incumbents who strayed from party dogma by, for instance, negotiating with a Democratic governor on taxes.
Instead, Republicans approved a policy, which won't begin until 2014, to allow GOP voters to weigh in on who should be endorsed through a mail-in campaign. That appears to give incumbents the kind of breathing room to pursue negotiations without having to worry about recriminations from a handful of party leaders, observers said.
"For a long time, there's been an element that's pushed the notion that any Republican negotiation with Democrats is heresy," said Julie Soderlund, a political consultant who helped run Republican Carly Fiorina's U.S. Senate campaign. "What we're seeing is a shift within the party because many conservatives are saying it's OK to have a discussion if we can make gains on important issues like budget reform. If that means we have to put before the voters a set of initiatives, it doesn't mean we support tax increases."
Brown is trying to rush a vote to have it done before July 1, when the taxes are scheduled to expire. At that point, he couldn't avoid the charge that he's raising taxes rather than the claim that he's keeping them at current levels.
Senate Leader Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, and Assembly Speaker John Perez, D-Los Angeles, have scheduled floor sessions for Monday, though it is not clear if they'll take up the budget legislation that remains to be finished, including the bill to kill redevelopment agencies.
Republicans forced Democrats to use mostly majority votes last week to approve $14 billion in cuts, fund shifts and loans, and refused to provide the votes needed for a bill to eliminate redevelopment agencies - legislation Republicans would typically support, given their view that the agencies have trampled property rights.
"It's important for Republicans to hold together and not take that piece off the table," said Assemblyman Jim Nielsen, R-Tehama County. "If the redevelopment bill would have passed, we would have lost a lot of our leverage."
Reach Steven Harmon at 916-441-2101. Follow him at Twitter.com/ssharmon. Read the Political Blotter at IBAbuzz.com/politics.