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Editorial

Schools before prisons

The governor is right about ensuring more money for education. But his method is wrong.

January 07, 2010

In his final State of the State address, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said California must shift its funding priorities from prisons to universities, and The Times couldn't agree more. A world-class, affordable system of higher education was part of what turned a state with remarkable potential in the 1940s into the global capital of scientific, cultural and economic achievement over the last half a century. Any society that spends more on incarcerating its people than providing them university educations won't long remain in its ascendancy. The governor has his priorities in order.

But Schwarzenegger seems to forget how we got to this point, where the level of medical care in our overcrowded prisons has been ruled not only unconscionable but unconstitutional, and where University of California and Cal State students must defer their college plans because of skyrocketing tuition.

California voted itself into this mess. Year after year, special interests that wanted to guarantee themselves perpetual funding sponsored constitutional amendments that tied up significant portions of the annual budget. All of them sounded good at the time -- locked-in spending for K-12 education, transportation, public safety, after-school programs, mental health -- and voters adopted them. Meanwhile, we toughened criminal sentences but didn't fund more prisons. On Friday, Schwarzenegger will release a spending plan that will be based not on his priorities, or the Legislature's, or even those of voters today, but rather on a patchwork of what budget-grabbers took to the ballot in 1988, 2002, 2006 and many other election years besides.

The governor now wants a constitutional amendment -- yet another one -- that commits the state to spending at least 10% of the general fund budget each year on higher education and no more than 7% on prisons. That's a reversal of today's allocation, and the re-prioritizing sounds good -- but the amendment does not. It's uncomfortably similar to Proposition 42, a 2002 measure that partially defunded higher education, prisons and everything else by restricting the sales tax on gasoline to transportation use only. Like the governor's new proposal, there was an escape clause -- with a declaration of emergency, Sacramento could move the money back to its original use. But automobile clubs and transit agencies had gotten used to the guaranteed funding stream, and as soon as there was a real necessity and Proposition 42 was suspended, transportation advocates went back to the ballot to eliminate the escape clause. They succeeded in 2006 -- and now government has less money for higher education, prisons and everything else.

The governor's goal is laudable, and we appreciate his call for an unmistakable statement by Californians of their support for higher-education funding. But ballot-box budgeting is not the cure. It is the disease.

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