As most citizens are surely aware by now, there are two competing tax proposals on the Nov. 6 ballot, both promising to protect public schools from even more of the drastic budget cuts that have already shortened the school year and significantly reduced arts, music and libraries in many districts.
One is Gov. Jerry Brown's Proposition 30, which would raise the sales tax slightly although it would still be below what it was from April 2009 through June 2011 and increase the income tax on high earners.
The state budget approved earlier this year includes $6 billion in cuts that would be imposed if Proposition 30 fails. The biggest cuts, $5.4 billion, would fall on public schools, which would be allowed to cut an additional 15 days from the school calendar. Public universities would endure another $500 million cut and would raise tuition again.
The other is Proposition 38, which would leave the sales tax rate alone but raise the income taxes on most Californians. Nearly all of the revenue from Proposition 38 would go to K-12 schools.
Some entities, notably the California School Boards Association, recommends a "yes" vote on both measures. We think it's more likely voters will support only one, and we think that Proposition 30 is preferable of the two, for several key reasons:
Proposition 38 does nothing to help community colleges, such as Modesto Junior College, which has reduced its course offerings by a quarter in the last five years and its staffing by about 12 percent. If Proposition 30 fails, the Yosemite Community College District, the parent agency for MJC and Columbia College, is looking at a $5.3 million cut effective at the start of 2013. That would translate to an additional 390 class sections cut in the spring semester, turning away the equivalent of 1,165 students.
Proposition 38 also does nothing to help public safety, a key component of Proposition 30. If Proposition 30 doesn't pass, Stanislaus County expects to lose millions of dollars it receives under realignment, in which nonviolent prisoners are housed and supervised locally rather than in state prison and under state parole.
Critics of both measures point to the failures by the state Legislature and money that was misspent or went missing such as the almost $60 million tucked away in the state parks fund. We cannot defend the performance of the Legislature, which let the state financial situation deteriorate to what it is today. State legislators should have done more sooner to address the public pension debt. They should never have added so many new problems in the flush times.
But rejecting Proposition 30 won't punish politicians but rather the many Californians who depend on the state budget. No. 1 on that list is public schools, from kindergarten through 12th grades. Schools depend almost entirely on the state for their day-to-day operations. Some think that the lottery is a big source of money, but it's not. It provides only a tiny fraction of operating costs. For Modesto City Schools, for example, it is about 1.4 percent of the operating budget.
Another misconception is that the almost $10 billion voters OK'd for high-speed rail could be redirected to operate schools. That's not possible; those bond proceeds cannot be used for teacher salaries or other operational costs.
In the unlikely event that both Propositions 30 and 38 are approved, the income tax provisions of the measure getting the most "yes" votes will be enacted.
Proposition 30 won't solve the state's budget troubles, but it's important to know that some progress has been made.
In his first two years in office, Brown pushed through significant changes that cut state spending by ending redevelopment and lowering prison population. He also has worked to restrain the excesses of Democrats in the Legislature.
California's fiscal house remains shaky. There is massive debt and immense need. Proposition 30 offers a way for the state to start climbing out of its pit. It's not ideal. But it is the best available option.
WHAT THEY WOULD DO
Increases sales tax rate by one-quarter cent for every dollar for four years.
Increases personal income tax rates on upper-income taxpayers for seven years. Would affect individuals with taxable income of more than $250,000 and couples' more than $500,000
No change in sales tax
Increases personal income tax rates on annual earnings over $7,316 using sliding scale from 0.4 percent for lowest individual earners to 2.2 percent for individuals earning over $2.5 million, for 12 years.
Source: Official Voter Information Guide
RECAP OF STATE SALES TAX RATES*
7/1/11 to date.....7.25%
4/1/09 to 6/30/11.....8.25%
1/1/02 to 3/31/09.....7.25%
1/1/01 to 12/31/01.....7%
7/15/91 TO 12/31/00.....7.25%
*Does not include local taxes, such as Stanislaus County's 0.125% (one-eighth cent) to fund libraries
Source: State Board of Equalization