Think Long Opts to Think Longer. Advantage Brown?

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Gov. Jerry Brown's competition for a 2012 tax initiative gets a little smaller. (Photo: Getty/Justin Sullivan)

It seems safe to say that Governor Jerry Brown and billionaire investor Nicolas Berggruen are unlikely to have much in common. One lives on a private jet and is the scion of an international art collector, the other favors spartan surroundings and heir to California's most mythologized political legacy.

But we now that they have one big thing in common: they both believe now is not the time for a ballot initiative on major tax reform. And if Brown is lucky, they may have something else in common in the days to come: a use for some of Berggruen's millions.

After months of speculation, the group of state political and policy heavyweights organized by Berggruen, the Think Long Committee for California, announced Tuesday afternoon that it would not seek to qualify a government or tax reform initiative for the November ballot.

"We recognize the practical constraints of the 2012 election calendar," says the emailed statement from the group, "and have come to the conclusion that it will take more time to perfect these proposals, eliminate unintended consequences and provide every stakeholder and everyday Californians a meaningful voice in that process."

The proposals, unveiled back in November, sought to broaden but grow the state's tax base and to create a new super committee of sorts to help vet would-be ballot measures.

It's no secret that the proposals -- crafted by a list of state VIPs for a campaign that Berggruen would help bankroll -- were one of the big players on the tax issue that Governor Brown knew he'd have to cajole to step aside in 2012. The prevailing belief among politicos is that multiple tax measures -- Brown's $7 billion income/sales tax hike plus others -- could result in an election day defeat for everyone. And Brown has made it clear that he hoped to dissuade the backers of other initiatives to step aside.

The governor's official response was short and to the point: I'll work with them on long-term reform. But it also begged the question: did the earlier statement from the Think Long group explain why Brown offered a rather quiet response?

Would Berggruen help fund the Brown tax campaign? (Photo: Getty/Johannes Eisele)

"In the coming days," says Think Long, "we will be announcing our intention to partner with other organizations by generously supporting one or more reform measures that have already been filed for the 2012 elections."

For a governor who's got an awful lot of cash to raise for a successful campaign, that's certainly got to sound promising. Brown may be able to point to his proposal's long-term realignment of state and local government (which would be funded, for now, by his temporary tax hike) as just the kind of "reform" that Think Long and its wealthy benefactor is looking for.

But if that's where things are headed, it's not being banked on by the governor's campaign. "We're soliciting support from a broad cross-section" of groups, said Brown political adviser Steve Glazer. He says the governor hasn't specifically asked the Berggruen group for donations. And truth be told, we don't know exactly how Think Long defines "reform," nor what proposed initiatives might meet the standard.

If you're keeping score at home, that's now two of the five potentially thorny alternative initiatives that Brown has been able to swat down. Two weeks ago, he persuaded the state's association of counties to suspend its initiative related to the realignment plan.

But the others are, as far as we know, still not on board Team Jerry: a millionaire's tax being pushed by the California Federation of Teachers and the liberal Courage Campaign; a broad-based income tax increase for K-12 schools written by a wealthy civil rights attorney; and the closing of a business tax break, with the cash used for clean energy projects, pushed by a San Francisco investment manager.

Things will no doubt start to solidify sometime soon. The governor's tax initiative is due to be cleared for signature gathering in 10 days, and the other measures may be ready for road testing soon thereafter.

Update 5:56 p.m. It's been pointed out to me, and importantly, that the clean energy initiative actually sends half of the money from ending the business tax break to the state's general fund, and that the clean energy financing is only temporary. Meantime, it's also worth noting that Think Long may end up financing the initiative idea offered by the group California Forward, given the connections between the two entities. We'll know soon enough.

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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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