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Schwarzenegger's Star Power Drives Prop. 49

The measure to fund after-school children's programs has broad support. But opponents say it could create state budget problems.

October 22, 2002|Carla Rivera | Times Staff Writer

Arnold Schwarzenegger, the architect and sponsor of Proposition 49, was at a town hall luncheon in Beverly Hills last week to press for passage of the November ballot measure that would require funding of more children's after-school programs.

Right away, the film star's charisma, and its effect on some voters, became apparent. "Hello Arnold," began a friendly question from the Beverly Hilton audience of about 500 business and community leaders. "I call you Arnold, although I don't know you. But I feel like I know you."

That sense of intimacy and the appeal of a child-centered issue may go far in explaining why Proposition 49 has such diverse supporters -- from the California Teachers Assn. to the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn. -- despite others' serious misgivings about its effect on state finances.

The initiative also has fed speculation that it may be a handy entree into the political arena for Schwarzenegger, who is a Republican. He has admitted that he "flirted" with the idea of running for governor after the White House encouraged him last year. At the town hall event, he deflected a question about his political ambitions, joking, "This is a decision that I leave to the Almighty--my wife, Maria." His wife is television newswoman Maria Shriver.

Still, the attention generated by his child initiative won't hurt. The After School Education and Safety Program Act of 2002, if passed, would dedicate as much as $550 million a year to before- and after-school programs for California's elementary and junior high school students.

Significantly, the measure specifies that funding for programs would be automatically appropriated from the state's general fund each year, without legislative action, and could be amended only with voter approval.

Proposition 49 does not raise taxes, unlike Proposition 10, the successful 1998 initiative that raised the tobacco tax to fund early childhood education programs. That measure also was sponsored by a well-known celebrity, actor and director Rob Reiner, who has been mentioned as a potential Democratic candidate for governor. Schwarzenegger argues that his measure will pay for itself in reduced crime, welfare and child-care costs. Proponents cite studies reporting that children who participate in after-school programs are less likely to commit violent crimes, be victims of violent crime, skip school, repeat grades or use alcohol, drugs and tobacco.

Every charter and public school could apply for funding. Elementary schools would be eligible for grants of as much as $50,000 per year and middle and junior high schools, $75,000 a year. Schools would have to match a portion of the grants through private or district sources. Schools with existing after-school programs would get priority for funding, as would those serving low-income students.

Eligible programs would have to provide academic support such as homework assistance and tutoring and enrichment activities such as sports, computer training and fine arts.

Current state funding for after-school programs is about $117 million annually and supports about 130,000 students. But educators estimate that an additional 1 million children 5 to 14 years old could benefit from after-school programs but lack access.

Schwarzenegger said Proposition 49 is an extension of his work with other childhood programs, such as the Los Angeles Inner-City Games. He also has worked for the Special Olympics and was chairman of the Council on Physical Fitness and Sports under former President George H. Bush.

"Children are really helpless. They can't fight for themselves, so we have to do it," Schwarzenegger said in his town hall address. "Why are we struggling to have more after-school programs? Because politicians don't see kids, [kids] don't vote. In Sacramento, when it comes to children's issues, [the politicians] are asleep."

A recent Los Angeles Times poll found that 55% of potential voters surveyed statewide supported the proposition, with 31% opposed and 14% saying they did not know. The pro-Proposition 49 campaign has amassed a war chest of $8 million and counting for television and radio advertising.

Proposition 49 has been endorsed by former Gov. Pete Wilson, current Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, most school boards, law enforcement agencies, district attorneys and mayors, including Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn.

But a few legislators, such as Assembly Speaker Pro Tem Fred Keeley (D-Boulder Creek), have recently withdrawn their endorsements, and others have said they want to study the measure more closely because of possible implications for state budgets. Though not taking a stand on the measure, the state's Legislative Analyst and the California Budget Project, a nonprofit fiscal research group, suggested that Proposition 49's built-in protections could lead to cuts in other social, health and educational programs during an economic downturn.

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