Schools proposition lost for good reason

June 23, 2009 

California's government is running out of cash, slicing services to the poor and the sick, laying off workers and cutting pay for those who remain.

But the Democrats who run the Legislature think this is the perfect time to obligate the taxpayers to a multibillion-dollar commitment to increase education spending.

If that idea sounds familiar, it is. The plan was first presented as Proposition 1B, part of the May 19 special election package that voters rejected. It was put in that package in part to win the support from the California Teachers Association, which spent more than $7 million in a failed attempt to persuade the voters to pass it.

Despite that result, the Democrats intend to include a nearly identical plan in the budget they say they will present this week. Republican lawmakers and

Gov. Schwarzenegger should insist that it be deleted.

What the state desperately needs now -- and will continue to need -- is flexibility. With fewer tax dollars coming in, lawmakers ought to have the ability to prioritize each year's spending according to the state's needs and money available. If that analysis yields an increase for the schools, so be it. But if a greater need arises, legislators should be able to address it.

Instead, this plan would tie the Legislature's hands and commit the state to at least $9.3 billion in new education spending over the next decade.

Democratic leaders and the teachers unions say the money will be owed to the schools because they are getting less than they expected to receive this year and next. But the governor and his staff believe the state can keep education spending to the minimum allowed without having to increase it later to compensate for the shortfall. The teachers association has threatened to sue the state if the governor's interpretation is adopted.

The dispute demonstrates the folly of ballot-box budgeting, through which narrow interest groups appeal to the voters for favored status. Proposition 98, passed by voters in 1988, is a hopelessly complicated formula that has not helped the schools as much as its authors intended but still makes life difficult for legislators already struggling to balance the budget.

We have been and continue to be strong supporters of the public schools. But now, with billions of new dollars coming their way from the federal stimulus package, schools will have to get by with less from the state. That's exactly the kind of real-time judgment call legislators and the governor should have the power to make.

Next year, or the year after, the situation might be different, and the needs of the schools might rise above other programs. But nobody knows what the economy will be like in two years, or how much tax revenue the state will take in. To commit billions of dollars to one program regardless of the condition of the state's finances is the same kind of irresponsible budgeting that got the state into this mess in the first place.

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