Political Notebook

Four ways Jerry Brown dodges tax question

Gov. Jerry Brown speaks at a news conference in Oakland on Aug. 19, 2015.
Gov. Jerry Brown speaks at a news conference in Oakland on Aug. 19, 2015. The Sacramento Bee

In a push for funding for billions of dollars in road repairs, Gov. Jerry Brown stood beside a podium Wednesday as Democratic lawmakers and local officials applauded him for his attention to transportation.

But when Brown’s turn came to speak at a news conference here, he refused to say whether any of the ideas lawmakers are pursuing – including gas tax or fee increases – are ones he would support.

“I’m not going to put all my cards on the table this morning,” Brown said.

The fourth-term Democrat told reporters he was “working on it.” But he said, “As a brooding omnipresence, I stand above the fray here.”

The awkwardness of the moment – Brown acknowledged it was “kind of interesting” not to state a position – reflected both the difficulty of negotiations with Republican lawmakers on the issue and Brown’s own sensitivity to the subject of taxes and fees.

When he ran for office in 2010, Brown said he would not raise taxes without a vote of the people, but he declined to say during his re-election campaign if he would hold fast to that pledge. In June, Brown said it is an “open question” whether he would sign a tax increase.

Yet it was Brown who called a special session of the Legislature to focus attention on the state’s road maintenance shortfall – estimated at about $5.7 billion annually. And his presence alongside Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, suggested Brown is supportive of increased revenue of some kind. Earlier this year, Atkins proposed assessing a new fee on all drivers to help pay for road repairs.

Brown attributed his reticence to talk openly about taxes and fees to good politics. Any proposal to increase gas taxes will require at least some Republican votes, and Bob Huff, the Senate Republican leader, said this week that there is no GOP support for raising taxes for transportation.

Brown said he was planning to talk with Huff on Wednesday.

“That’s kind of interesting to have a press conference and not provide you with what it is you’re seeking,” Brown said. “But what you’re getting here is the opening chapter in a longer novel, and there’ll be more chapters in the next few weeks.”

David Siders: 916-321-1215, @davidsiders