Reporter's Notebook: Tax Talks, Supremes and Signatures

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We may complain that there's no rest for the weary, but political junkies would be disappointed if the tasty morsels of news came to an end with the unveiling of a new state budget. Right?

If your answer is yes, then consider these items coming soon to a newscast near you.

Brown's Taxing Ballot Quest: Score one win for Governor Jerry Brown this past week on his quest to clear the field of potential initiatives that might muddle or undermine his own. Buried under the barrage of surprise budget news on Thursday was a formal decision by the California State Association of Counties to suspend its own realignment initiative, after a personal pitch by Brown that morning (that was, well, what all of thought was the day's news at the time).

The governor spent about an hour Thursday morning in a spirited give-and-take with county supervisors, pointing out that only his initiative offered the money for realignment and the language to ensure the deal isn't undone by future politicians. Several local officials worried about whether Brown will be able to create a broad coalition, or what would happen if the taxes fail.

While he didn't confirm any particular partners, Brown said he's personally pitched Microsfot CEO Steve Ballmer and Oracle CEO Larry Ellison, as well as organized labor, insurance companies, and Indian gaming tribes. And the governor suggested that if his measure is rejected on November 6, he could always call a special election in 2013 and try again. "I'm not leaving Sacramento until you're protected," he told the county officials.

To which CSAC president and Yolo County supervisor Mike McGowan jokingly said to the audience, "If you want to get rid of him, let's get it done."

Now Brown sets his sights on cajoling several other groups to abandon their own tax initiatives. And hours after the Guv unveiled new budget cuts impacting services used by the poor, the group pushing a new millionaire's tax quickly argued it was proof that his tax initiative is misguided.

"To save these programs, the governor's solution is to rely on a sales tax for a large proportion of the money, which would disproportionately impact the people who are already hurting," said a statement from activist Anthony Thigpenn.

Pre-K Delay: Lost in much of the early reaction to the budget was Brown's call for pushing back the start of California's transitional kindergarten by a year. The governor's budget pushes back the program for 4-year olds to get an extra year before enrolling in kindergarten to the 2013-14 school year -- a savings estimated at $224 million and, according to his budget, "used to support existing education programs."

Supremes Get the "Likely" Question: The last shot for opponents of the new state Senate map drawn last summer by the panel of citizen commissioners comes on Tuesday in front of the California Supreme Court. And for those who aren't redistricting fanatics, the entire case hinges on 47 words. They're found in the state constitution, thanks to 2010's Proposition 20 (emphasis is mine):

Any registered voter in this state may also file a petition for a writ of mandate or writ of prohibition to seek relief where a certified final map is subject to a referendum measure that is likely to qualify and stay the timely implementation of the map.

Yes, it's all about the usage of "likely." Opponents of the Senate map say because their referendum measure is "likely" to qualify, the commission map can't be used and the Supreme Court must appoint its own map drawers. Attorneys for the state say reading the entire sentence shows it's merely meant to explain how a citizen has standing to file a redistricting lawsuit.

The plaintiff in the case, who is also the proponent of the Senate map referendum, failed to get the high court justices back in October to block the maps on constitutional fairness issues. Now this case is their only hope to getting a set of maps, ones that they say would be more favorable to Republicans, in place for the 2012 election cycle. Even if their referendum qualifies, it won't be on the ballot until November 6.

And in a beautiful bit of serendipity, the deadline for local elections officials to finish their initial inspection of redistricting referendum signatures is... Tuesday, just hours after the legal challenge will be heard in the Supreme Court's San Francisco chambers at 9:00 a.m. (and watchable statewide on the California Channel).

Expect plaintiff's attorneys to argue that the measure will qualify (even though the current count suggests and even the campaign's own political team has said it will take a full count of signatures, which might not end until March); while attorneys for the redistricting commission will no doubt question its chances for qualification (arguing even the "likely" standard of the plaintiff can't be proved) while also reminding the high court that the process of candidates filing to run for the state Senate began on December 30 -- i.e., it's too late to stop the train.

The Week Ahead at the Capitol: Expect a lot of chatting about the state's landmark environmental review law, CEQA. Assembly GOP bills to either modify CEQA or make exemptions will be heard in a lower house committee, while a tweak to last session's narrow CEQA exemptions signed into law by Governor Brown will be heard in a Senate committee. Keep your eye on the Senate one; the bill is drafted as an urgency statute, which requires the ever elusive bipartisan two-thirds vote.

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About John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new multimedia California Politics & Government Desk.  He has covered California politics for most of the past two decades -- serving previously as Sacramento bureau chief for KQED News and, most recently, as political editor for KXTV News10 (ABC) in Sacramento. He moderated the only gubernatorial debate of 2014, and was named one of the nation's top statehouse reporters by The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.

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