By Erika Kelly
Gov. Jerry Brown has been blazing the campaign trail for Proposition 30 for several weeks now. It’s his big play to bring in new revenue, and he’s lined up a lot of support to pay for campaign ads that begin Wednesday. People and organizations have ponied up more than $41 million to back Prop. 30. Brown warns that without the added revenue, California schools would face something like financial Armageddon. That’s a message he served up at an August visit to San Francisco’s James Lick Middle School.
“If people say ‘no, we don’t want to tax the most rewarded and blessed among us, we want to close schools,'” he told the crowd, “okay, I’ll manage as best as we can. But I will tell you, and I’m telling you the truth, everything I’ve seen in my lifetime tells me that schools need more money.”
The “blessed people” Brown refers to are California’s highest earners. Under Prop. 30, they would see their income taxes go up for seven years. But it’s not just the wealthy who would be asked to chip in. Everyone who makes a purchase in California would have to pay an additional quarter-cent sales tax for four years. This year’s state’s budget assumes Prop. 30 will pass and billions of dollars of new revenue will flow into state coffers. But H.D. Palmer, spokesman for the State Department of Finance, says if voters reject the measure, significant cuts are coming — and fast.
“We still have an obligation to maintain spending close to the revenue we take in. So the legislature preapproved a package of so-called trigger cuts, reductions in state spending that would automatically take effect on January the first of next year,.” Palmer says.
Those trigger cuts would slice $5.4 billion from K-12 schools and community colleges this fiscal year — that’s equal to about three weeks of the school year. Palmer says it would also force cuts at California’s public universities.
“The CSU’s Board of Trustees approved a contingent 5 percent fee increase on their students at CSU if Proposition 30 does not pass. And that would be about $150 that they would have to pay.”
The Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates Prop. 30 would raise about $6 billion a year for the next four years. That would go into a special education fund, which would in turn free up money for the state to spend on other needs. Based on the way California calculates education funding, Prop. 30 is expected to give schools $2-3 billion more than they get now.
A lesser known piece of Prop. 30 is its impact on public safety. The measure would guarantee funding for counties that are managing state prisoners under the new realignment program, which is meant to ease crowding in state prisons.
Alameda County’s Santa Rita Jail — like jails across California — is getting realignment funds from the state. The money pays for things like probation officers, jail beds and security guards. At Santa Rita, the funds make it possible for prisoners to attend classes.
Santa Rita Jail has a growing number of so-called “local state prisoners,” and they stay far longer than typical county inmates, according to Lt. M. Ditzenberger, inmate services manager for the jail. She says that as the number of prisoners grows, funding from the state is crucial to keep services going.
“We don’t want [inmates] going back to the streets without a GED diploma, or some sort of employability training,” she says. “We want them to reintegrate back into the communities from which they came.”
Prop. 30’s supporters say that between school funding and public safety, there’s a lot riding on the measure. But critics have seized on recent events like the state parks scandal and the ballooning cost of high speed rail as proof that the state can’t be trusted with additional tax dollars. Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.
“We have a spending problem, not a revenue problem,” Coupal says. “And we misspend, we misallocate … like on a toy train that we cannot afford, and we should direct those funds towards California’s higher priorities, which are public safety and education.”
But Gov. Brown argues that without more revenue, there is no way to avoid painful cuts. Dan Schnur, Director of the Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California, says the governor’s argument might be persuasive.
“If you tell people pay higher taxes cause it’s a good thing and the nice thing and the generous thing to do, that’s a tough political message to sell, Schnur says. “Invariably, when these types of measures pass, it’s because people who don’t like paying higher taxes are concerned that the alternative is something even worse.”
Recent polls show the measure’s approval hovering just above 50 percent.
Listen to Erika Kelly’s story on The California Report: