Prop 1B: The One Time Fix

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Four of the six measures on next month's statewide ballot seek to pull money, from various sources, to help plug the state's immediate and near-term budget hole.

One of them, if voters approve, would widen that hole by more than $9 billion dollars.

That measure is Proposition 1B, a complicated one-time solution to a fight over how much state government is legally obligated to pay for K-12 education and community colleges. And it is the focus of our ongoing coverage of special election measures on this morning's edition of The California Report.

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Prop 1B is pretty impossible to understand without at least a modest discussion of the most complicated budget measure ever enacted by voters -- Proposition 98, the 1988 initiative that dictates base funding for California's public schools.

Prop 98 will make your head hurt. Its tangled web of formulas offer various ways to calculate the portion of annual state revenues that must be spent on schools, formulas that include everything from state and local revenues to demographic trends and beyond.

But the basic maxim of Prop 98 is actually pretty simple: whichever formula gives schools the most money is the one to use.

This year, the winning formula also happened to be one that's only been used once in the entire lifespan of Prop 98. And now, the quandry: Prop 98 doesn't seem to explicitly say what to do if that formula leaves school funding below expected levels.

Confused? Then let's cut to the chase: the quandry led to a pretty intense debate this winter about how to read Prop 98. In the end, folks at the state Capitol punted... and decided to let the voters make the call.

"Prop 1B is really about how much, if any, of that [current] reduction should be restored in the long term," says Jennifer Kuhn, the top K-12 guru for the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office.

But Kuhn says Prop 1B is only a one-time fix, a $9.3 billion infusion into public schools over the next few years. That infusion would be in installments, roughly $1.5 billion a year starting in the 2011-12 budget year and lasting as long as six years. Those payments could not be suspended for any reason.

"Proposition 1B is not sensitive to the state's fiscal condition," says Kuhn. "That [money] has to be provided to education, regardless of the fiscal environment."

Educators say the money is badly needed. David Sanchez, president of the California Teachers Association, says Prop 1B money would go for things like rescinding teacher layoffs and ensuring the continuation of the class-size reduction program (although the money wouldn't start showing up for two more years). The CTA has put millions into the campaign to pass Prop 1B.

"It's money that, under Prop 98, is guaranteed to schools," asserted Sanchez in an interview last week.

That may be. But the reality is that Prop 1B sidesteps the underlying Prop 98 isssue. Some say that the proper resolution is in the courts, thus providing clarity to how Prop 98 should work should such an economic crisis happen again. One thing, though, seems for sure: if Prop 1B is rejected, the legal case will be filed. CTA president Sanchez agreed with that assessment in our interview last week.

LAO analyst Kuhn says while the actual cost is impossible to nail down, it's possible that Prop 1B could result in higher school spending over the next decade. That's because every year that Prop 1B adds money to school funding, the money becomes part of base funding, per Prop 98. Kuhn says that probably won't change the really long term funding projections, but could result in a bubble of required higher spending in the immediate future.

We've failed to mention something else. Oh, and it's big. Prop 1B will only be enacted if Proposition 1A also passes. Why? Supporters say Prop 1A is the way to ensure that enough revenue is around to make the Prop 1B payments. Political observers note that linking the two measures forced the powerful CTA to support the Prop 1A spending restraint, even though the union was the leading opponent to Governor Schwarzenegger's last attempt to impose a budget spending/revenue formula.

That may be. Still, voters are left with a major policy decision: should public school funding have additional guarantees regardless of actual available revenues? And is this one-time fix/workaround/solution to the constitutional amendment they enacted 20 years ago a good thing?

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About John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new multimedia California Politics & Government Desk.  He has covered California politics for most of the past two decades -- serving previously as Sacramento bureau chief for KQED News and, most recently, as political editor for KXTV News10 (ABC) in Sacramento. He moderated the only gubernatorial debate of 2014, and was named one of the nation's top statehouse reporters by The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.

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