School Beat: Vote “NO” On All Propositions!

by Lisa Schiff on May 14, 2009

Another Special Election is just around the corner, which means it’s once again time to stop Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Republican state legislators in their tracks. Despite all of the dire messages, despite all of the confusing language, despite all of the whiplash inducing endorsements, the propositions facing voters on May 19th hold nothing but bad news for important social services, including public education.

As described in a School Beat from a few weeks ago, this Special Election is yet another power grab at the expense of the general public, just like Schwarzenegger’s past ballot efforts. But this time around the confusion level is unusually high, primarily because of two major factors. First, the California budget is even more of a disaster because of the general economic downturn. Second, the proposed “fixes” expressed in the ballot propositions are being masterfully marketed in a way that mischaracterizes how terrible they are for California. Looking just at the two that most directly affect public education can make this clear …

Propositions 1A and 1B have been at the center of a multi-media marketing blitz, with messaging targeted to voters who want to feel they are shoring up education and supporting students in a fiscally responsible way. Proposition 1A is described as a way to save money for future needs (hence the “Rainy Day” concept) so that schools and other state services won’t face a dry revenue well in the future. Proposition 1B advertisements proudly describe paying back “some” of the money that schools have lost during this period.

But of course, this isn’t the full story. The real scoop involves reading not only the fine print of the proposed legislation, but also being “in the know” enough to be aware of the bills passed during this last budget go around that are only triggered if Proposition 1A passes. These types of crucial “details” are uncovered in some very accessible reports by the California Budget Project, which has a special section just for the special election.

The analysis of 1A and 1B brings to the foreground some important aspects to consider:

Rainy Day Fund Minimum Too High: The amount of the Rainy Day Fund would be outrageously increased from 3% to 12.5% of the estimated General Revenue. That’s a lot of money to keep in reserve for a state that is unwilling to raise tax revenues to cover bare minimum costs for essential services, like public education.

Difficult to Spend Rainy Day Fund Contributions: The formula for determining if Rainy Day funds can be suspended is tied to the Consumer Price Index, which is not an accurate proxy for the types of “purchases” made by states. Because of this calibration difference, the state could experience a budget gap but not be able to bridge that gap with the reserve funds.

Difficult to Suspend Contributions: The various tests that are structured into the measure make it difficult to stop paying into the fund even when there shortfalls, especially if Proposition 1B passes, which requires that payments to one portion of the fund can never be waived. This should be seen as a metaphorical fishing lure to public education supporters. It appeals to our desire to have schools get what they require, but it’s ultimately coming at our own expense.

No Independent Oversight: All of the revenue estimates defined in 1A would be calculated by a Director of Finance appointed by the Governor, with no legislative oversight. And, if 1A passes, then Senate Bill 8 goes into effect, which gives Schwarzenegger and future governors unilateral authority to declare a fiscal emergency and cut spending. This should sound hauntingly familiar to anyone who’s been in California for the last few years, as it’s the Holy Grail Schwarzenegger has been after his entire time in office.

Those should be enough reasons on their own to vote no on Proposition 1A and 1B, and by extension, the rest of the propositions as they are equally flawed. There is perhaps an even more important reason to though, and that is that these Propositions do absolutely nothing to address the structural revenue problems in our state, even in the short run. Even if 1A and 1B were to pass, there would still be a budget shortfall, along with its requisite budget stalemate and the standoff between the Republicans and Democrats induced by the ludicrous 2/3 threshold to pass a budget or raise taxes.

These propositions are no solution at all. They represent nothing more than extortion, misdirection, and another tired effort to protect the wealthy and large corporations. The legislative fixes Californian’s really deserve are a revamping of Proposition 13; a revoking of the 2/3 threshold to pass the budget; a shifting in budget priorities; and a thorough analysis of how to modernize our revenue streams so that they provide a fiscal foundation for essential services. Unfortunately these items will not be on your ballots on the 19th, but they should be.

Lisa Schiff is the parent of two children who attend McKinley Elementary School in the San Francisco Unified School District and is a member of Parents for Public Schools of San Francisco and the PTA and is a board member at the national level of Parents for Public Schools.

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