Gov. Jerry Brown talks with second-graders at Perkins Elementary School… (Lenny Ignelzi / Associated…)
The Times' editorial board weighed in again Friday on Proposition 30, trying to remind voters about the cuts looming for schools, higher education and other state programs if the measure fails. More than 20 readers quickly pushed back, arguing that Sacramento already is killing the state with taxes and that lawmakers should learn to live within their means.
That's the same argument you'll hear from some quarters about any proposed tax increase. But readers made another, more distinctive point about this measure, which Gov. Jerry Brown put together to help close the state's nagging budget gap. By giving voters the choice between a tax increase and more cuts to schools, they contended, Brown is committing extortion at the ballot box.
Here's how a reader identified as "Retired LASD" put it: "Will the scare tactics by these sleazy politicians never cease? Do they have no shame, to always use our children as their catalyst to sucker the voters to increase taxes?"
ENDORSEMENTS: The Times' recommendations for Nov. 6
Ahem. Proposition 98 dictated that about half of the revenue flowing into the state's general fund gets spent on public schools and community colleges. As a consequence, "our children" have a considerable stake in any tax increase that's not walled off from the general fund.
But there's a more important factor to consider. In preparing the budget for 2012-13, lawmakers assumed that Brown's proposal would pass. That allowed them to cut spending by $8 billion, not $16 billion as otherwise would have been necessary to balance the budget. The result was a budget $4-billion higher than in 2011-12; the vast majority of that increase goes to schools and community colleges.
Because voters hadn't yet approved a tax increase, the Legislature had to include in the budget a set of cuts that would go into effect if Proposition 30 failed. Naturally, schools are at the top of the list; not only had they largely been spared in the initial $8 billion worth of cuts, they'd received billions of dollars in additional funding.
So, does Proposition 30 point a metaphorical gun at the head of schoolchildren? Or does funding for schools hang in the balance because lawmakers included Proposition 30's anticipated revenues in the budget, rather than making more cuts and hoping voters would reverse them?
Of course, had the Legislature done that, critics would probably have accused lawmakers of holding schoolchildren hostage to Brown's proposed tax increase. Either way, the measure gets framed by critics as a cynical attack on children.
There's one other element to the complaints from "Retired LASD" and like-minded voters: the notion that Sacramento is using the threat of budget cuts to schools to generate more tax money for all manner of state programs.
Proposition 30 is projected to raise about $6 billion, and the net increase to schools from those dollars would be about $3 billion. The rest would avert cuts to other programs. It's true, however, that the campaign in favor of Proposition 30 has focused exclusively on the aid to schools, drawing accusations that it's trying to mislead voters.
The political reality is that raising taxes is more palatable to voters when the money goes to schools, not other government functions. Meanwhile, the economic reality is that the schools' general fund dollars have declined steadily since 2008-09, even as lawmakers have shielded them from the largest cuts. Instead, they've taken big chunks out of programs with less powerful constituencies, such as Medi-Cal, CalWORKS and corrections.
That's closed much, but not all, of the state's budget gap, leaving K-12 schools as the largest remaining target. Schools may not be the only beneficiary of Proposition 30, but they would be the largest by far -- and the biggest losers should it fail.
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