Today's announcement that Governor Schwarzenegger is proposing an increase in K-12 education spending for 2006-07 came with a laundry list of new education programs... but ones the governor suggests paying for out of the same money the schools would already receive under the minimum funding guarantee.
Schwarzenegger's education secretary, Alan Bersin, outlined some of the new proposals at the same time he announced plans to repay almost $1.7 billion of the money owed under Proposition 98.
The "how much money is owed" argument aside, the governor is proposing to earmark about $321.5 million in education funding for everything from fine arts programs to physical education grants and high school exit exam support services.
[More details can be found in the governor's official press release here]
The proposals were part of the 45 minute meeting between education community leaders and the governor's staff (Schwarzenegger reportedly was present for parts of the meeting). But those same education leaders came out less than thrilled with the specific proposals.
"How are these new programs, however desirable, going to help me keep my schools open?", said Brian Lewis, executive director of the California Association of School Business Officials. Lewis says with many schools already shortchanged on the basics, it's a bad idea to start earmarking money for new programs.
But H.D. Palmer, deputy director of the governor's Department of Finance, says those criticisms miss the fact that a full $2.7 billion of the money the governor is putting into education is "discretionary", far outweighing the money being committed to the new programs.
Considering how much focus there will be in this new year on the state's infrastructure needs, the best starting point for discussion may be the comprehensive analysis of the issue released today by the non-partisan Legislative Analyst's Office.
The LAO report takes a much needed snapshot of the big picture, and it also raises some important questions for lawmakers about both how serious the state's problems really are, and how best to provide some real improvements for everything from jammed freeways to aging classrooms and levies.
If you're not nursing holiday fatigue, read it for yourself here. If you are, then consider for now what appear to be the LAO's most intriguing points:
* How Did We Get Here? The LAO analysis suggests that, contrary to popular perception, the state's current funding for infrastructure needs isn't that bad. In fact, the report concludes that California's per-capita infrastructure spending is now the highest it's been in decades. The problem seems to have been very low per-capita spending in the 1970s and early 1980s... an era of low investments that we are now struggling to overcome.
* How Much Is Needed? This will be a much debated issue in the coming weeks. One intriguing number comes from the 2003 infrastructure plan submitted by then Governor Gray Davis (the Schwarzenegger administration, as recently reported by many news organizations, has not submitted the required plan in the past 2 years). The 2003 plan prices the state's needs through 2008 at about $54 billion.
The LAO takes the Davis plan's rate of growth and extrapolates that the costs through 2011 could be as high as $75 billion.
As the old TV commercials say, but wait, there's more! The LAO report suggests the 2003 analysis doesn't account for substantial flood control needs in the Central Valley, or for any traffic congestion projects not already in the pipeline. So assume the real needs could be even higher.
* How Do We Solve The Problems? The LAO advises a two-pronged plan of deciding what order to proceed, and then how to pay for all of it.
Among the more intriguing recommendations: determine what needs should be actually be paid for by local governments... consider policy changes like year-round operations of higher education facilities (to reduce the need for more buildings) or a higher gas tax (to both pay for projects and encourage carpooling)... and make public health and safety infrastructure needs the #1 priority.
Granted, it's a lot to take in, but it shows how much more complex the issue of California's infrastructure needs is than the discussion often covered in speeches and news events.