Teachers v. Arnold: The Sequel

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The debate over erasing California's massive budget deficit may now be headed into a new, and particularly bitter phase... as arguably the state's most powerful interest group hammers Governor Schwarzenegger for his suggestion to further reduce spending on public schools.

On Wednesday night, the above TV ad was added to the online home of the California Teachers Association. Capitol types have been buzzing about the ad for the better part of a week, since the new budget year began with word that Schwarzenegger may recommend a suspension of the school funding guarantee, Proposition 98. You're likely to see it on TV stations statewide in a matter of days or even hours.

The ad returns us to the days of yesteryear -- 2005, to be exact -- the year when the CTA, allied with other powerful labor unions, obliterated both Schwarzenegger's job approval ratings and his vaunted special election ballot measures. That year also saw a bitter lawsuit that challenged the governor's interpretation of what was, or wasn't, owed to schools using the complicated Prop 98 formulas. The suit was settled the following year, allowing Schwarzenegger to bury the hatchet with the CTA months before his reelection campaign and thus promote his dedication to full public school funding.

"He said he was sorry," the narrator of the new CTA says in a somber voice. "He said, 'Never again.'" From there, the ad goes on to list the current troubles for schools, ones well known as the state's revenues sink lower and lower in the midst of an ongoing national recession.

The ad was no doubt prompted by last week's failure of the governor and legislators to ratify budget savings before the clock struck midnight and closed the books on the state's 2008-09 fiscal year. That failure effectively added another few feet of red ink on the floor of the state treasury. But determining exactly how much red ink... or for that matter, how Prop 98 is supposed to function in the unusual economic circumstances now in play... is still a work in progress.

Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg told reporters Wednesday he thinks the Schwarzenegger administration's estimate of a new $3 billion education problem is still "in flux," and that negotiations over a deficit solution are dependent on nailing those numbers down. An adviser to the governor said in an email Wednesday that such comments are just a way for legislators to again avoid making the necessary cuts to resolve the believed $26.3 billion problem.

In addition to the ad, the CTA website includes a flyer for educators to download as a guide for lobbying legislators. The flyer says that tax hikes are needed to help erase the deficit, including the much-discussed oil severance and tobacco tax proposals.

But back to the raw politics of the ad. Remember that just two months ago, the teachers and the Guv went arm-in-arm to the voters, asking them to approve supplemental funding for schools through Proposition 1B. Prop 1B was resoundingly defeated, and now the old battle lines seem to have gone back up.

The CTA-Schwarzenegger relationship was dramatic from the beginning. Teachers agreed to back the governor's 2003-04 suspension of Prop 98... the only such move in the measure's history. But the 2005 lawsuit grew out of that deal turning sour, and things have been volatile ever since. (Aside from this year, the other big alliance between the warriors was in 2006 for passage of school infrastructure bonds as part of that year's Proposition 1C.)

The CTA ad isn't without its risks; after all, the voters rejected Prop 1C last month even though school funding boosts have been heretofore politically sacrosanct in California. There is a risk of CTA overplaying its hand in a way that could boost Schwarzenegger's "we don't have the money for anything, folks" message. Of course, the ad could also push public sentiment against the governor's call for addtional deep spending cuts in education, thus forcing him into considering deficit solutions that are just as, or more, politically tough.

It's too soon to know how the ad will play when it's seen in homes across the state. But its appearance seems to signal that the battle over this deficit isn't close to being resolved, even though the state issued some $288.3 million in IOUs in just four days beginning last Thursday.

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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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