It's A Prop 98 Thing, You Wouldn't Understand

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If you took out a calculator, added up some numbers, and hit "equals," you'd expect an answer that was indisputable, right?

Now imagine there were certain buttons on the calculator that would make the math turn out differently. Or suppose you and a friend just agreed the calculator's result was flawed and from now on you'd tweak it. Or suppose the two of you couldn't even agree on what numbers to enter into the calculator.

If all of that was the case... would you use that process to spend as much as $50 billion in taxpayer money? No? Then read no further... because you're not going to like what's after the jump.

Yes, we're back to a discussion of Proposition 98, that thicket of formulas that voters authorized to control funding for K-12 education and California's community colleges. And because Prop 98 is such a tangled web of what-ifs and but-thens, it's virtually impossible for any one person to prove that their interpretation of the law is indisputable.

In a nutshell, then, the process of crafting a plan to resolve the state's budget deficit (of about $25 billion) has now become stuck on whether Prop 98 needs to be legally clarified for public schools to get some supplemental cash... and if so, whether that clarification can be done at the state Capitol or only at the ballot box.

We began this discussion last night. The issue apparently remains a wrench in the system today.

Perhaps we should begin with the acknowledgment that public schools are going to get an additional $11 billion over the next few years, an apparent function of spending reductions over the past couple of years.

"Education ought to get the money back," said Governor Schwarznegger in comments to reporters around midday. Democratic legislative leaders say they believe the same thing.

"We want to make sure," said Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg last night, "that public education gets back to the [funding] level that it and the kids, most importantly, deserve to get back to."

Sounds like a deal, right? Nope.

That's because Democrats want language they say would "clarify" Prop 98's funding obligations in bad economic times such as these, and they believe that clarification can be done through a simple bill passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor.

The governor seems to be saying that anything other than a one-time fix for the schools, which he supports, would require the voters to modify Prop 98. "We're not going to do it here in this building statutorily," Schwarzenegger told reporters today.

Democrats, along with backing from the powerful California Teachers Association, believe that the issue must be resolved once and for all... or else be left to interpretation by the courts or future lawmakers.

(For a sharper analysis, check out this morning's report by Sacramento Bee reporter Kevin Yamamura.)

So now what? Who knows. One problem: we still don't have a final tally on tax revenues from June. That was the final month of the 2008-09 fiscal year, and that data will be the final word on the guaranteed funding level for schools in the year that just ended... thanks to your friend and mine, Prop 98.

Should you ever want to try to understand Prop 98, the good folks at the Legislative Analyst's Office have a nifty... but lengthy... primer.

[update: An earlier verison of this posting said that "all sides agree" that schools are due an additional $11 billion. But legislative Republicans don't believe that, saying instead that they think the final tally of the state's revenues for the year just ended will leave schools operating under a part of Prop 98 that offers no extra cash. Point well taken, though when the Guv and Dems agree on it... the momentum on the issue may be hard to stop.]

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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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