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Senate Democrats are turning for the second year to a New York City-based public policy research firm for advice on how to craft their talking points on taxes.

Members and staff are scheduled to attend a Tuesday morning messaging and strategy session put on by representatives from Demos, which bills itself as a nonpartisan organization that "combines research, policy development, and advocacy to influence public debates and catalyze change."

"This will not be an abstract or academic exercise," reads an email memo distributed by the office of Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley. "You will receive specific advice and they will report on their research on how to communicate about tax and budget issues: What to say, how to say it, who to say it to, and how to communicate complex economic issues to reach the widest possible audience with the right message."

The off-site meetings, which will be held in a California Labor Federation conference room, come as legislative Democrats and Gov. Jerry Brown are mulling their next steps to close a projected $15.4 billion budget deficit. Brown has proposed asking voters to continue $11.2 billion in 2009 tax increases. With a June election to extend those taxes before they expire no longer an option, some unions are pushing for other tax increases, including higher tax rates for the top 1 percent of earners, to be included in the budget package.

While the presentation was set up for members of the Senate Majority Caucus and staff, the office of Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg said the visit was suggested and arranged by Hancock's office.

"When one of our members has something they'd like to present to the caucus, we accommodate," Steinberg spokesman Nathan Barankin said.

Hancock spokesman Larry Levin said his boss took the initiative to organize the meetings after learning about work Demos has done advising legislators and initiative campaigns in other states. Those efforts including working to "inform public perception of taxes, and to promote a fair tax system that supports effective government structures," according to the Demos website.

Though there is no shortage of budget experts and communications consultants on the payroll at the Capitol, Levin said Demos provides a different perspective for members to consider.

"They were just very impressive in terms of their research and the presentation and how to communicate issues," Levin said. "They're not pollsters and they're not communications people. They're not operational political people. They're a research and policy development independent group."

Levin said Demos is not being compensated by the Legislature but that the visit is part of a California junket sponsored by The San Francisco Foundation, a Bay Area philanthropic and advocacy organization. Last year's visit was funded in part by contributions from individual legislators' campaign accounts, he said.

Sara Ying Rounsaville, vice president of public affairs and communications for The San Francisco Foundation, confirmed that the organization helped arrange and fund Tuesday's trip to Sacramento through its public policy and advocacy program, which supports efforts "designed to achieve social justice and promote progressive social change." The full trip agenda includes Demos workshops for grant recipients and other foundations in the Bay Area and a second Sacramento presentation involving the California Budget Project,which advocates for low-income residents.

"We have a real interest in having an informed and engaged Bay Area population and we include in it our elected representatives in Sacramento," she said.

Rounsaville said organizers sought to target "interested legislators and staff" for the program. Senate Republicans, who were not invited to the Tuesday session, didn't seem to think the added insight would do the Democrats' much good.

"Clearly the Democrats are concerned that California voters are not going to support their tax hike, as they should be," said Jann Taber, spokeswoman for Senate GOP leader Bob Dutton.



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