- Associated Press - Wednesday, August 22, 2012

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California Gov. Jerry Brown has made austerity a hallmark of his administration, telling state workers they must turn in their cellphones, selling off state vehicles, severely reducing employee travel and cutting billions from the general fund.

Mr. Brown was counting on that record to help him sell his November ballot initiative seeking to boost the state sales and income taxes temporarily to close what was a $15.7 billion budget deficit and avoid further cuts to education.

Yet a summer of headlines about state spending scandals and Mr. Brown’s own push for some of the nation’s most expensive infrastructure projects have threatened to undermine that carefully crafted message and jeopardize the success of his tax initiative.

Opponents are mocking his message that voters can be assured their money will be handled responsibly if the higher taxes are passed. Critics also pounced on a scandal in which state parks employees hid millions of dollars while threatening to close dozens of parks.

One group opposing his initiative asked in a radio ad this week, “What else are they keeping from us?”

The bad news for Mr. Brown also includes a disclosure of pay raises to legislative staffers already making six figures. And at a time when he says the state does not have enough money for schools, he approved the first stage of a $68 billion high-speed rail system and announced plans for a $24 billion tunneling system to move water from north to south.

His initiative also faces several competing tax questions, including a well-financed campaign to raise state income taxes for education and dozens of tax increases pushed by local governments.

It all adds up to a tough sell for a governor who says he wants to end the state’s cycle of crippling budget deficits.

As Mr. Brown kicked off his campaign for Proposition 30 at a Sacramento high school last week, he sought to emphasize that most of the revenue from the tax increases would come from Californians who are among the wealthiest; an extra $4,500 a year for millionaires, he said.

“This is not about any other issue. It’s not about pensions, it’s not about parks. It’s about one simple question,” the Democratic governor told reporters outside the school. “Shall those who’ve been blessed beyond imagination give back one or two or three percent for the next seven years, or shall we take billions out of our schools and colleges to the detriment of the kids standing behind us and the future of our state?”

Mr. Brown continued his campaign tour Wednesday at a San Francisco school, where he acknowledged that the tax initiative is a tough sell. Yet he urged voters not to take out their frustrations with politicians on children.

“There’s a lot of naysayers out there saying, ‘Oh, there’s something wrong in government,’ or ‘These politicians are doing something; therefore, punish the kids,”’ Mr. Brown said.

The budget Mr. Brown signed into law this summer includes about $6 billion in automatic cuts to schools, higher education and other state programs that could take effect if voters reject the tax increases — a tactic intended to help sell it because voters are more inclined to raise taxes for education than for any other cause. Some school districts could cut three weeks from the school year if the tax initiative fails.

Proposition 30 calls for higher tax rates on incomes of more than $250,000 for seven years and a quarter-cent increase in the statewide sales tax for four years.

Mr. Brown is keeping a campaign promise not to raise taxes without a public vote, but he has been forced to defend himself against problems not of his making.

AP writer Terry Collins contributed to this report.