Education cuts at stake in tax battle

Passage of Gov. Brown's Prop. 30 would spare schools and universities. But a Prop. 38 victory would trigger big reductions.

SACRAMENTO — Let's cut through all the baloney being spread in California's tax brawl and go straight to what's basically at stake.

At stake, at least in the near future, is whether public school funding will be slashed from kindergarten through the universities.

If Gov. Jerry Brown's Proposition 30 passes — and receives more votes than wealthy attorney Molly Munger's Prop. 38 — K-12 schools and community colleges will be spared $5.4 billion in budget cuts. Plus, the two university systems won't be dinged $250 million each.

VOTER GUIDE: 2012 California Propositions

If, however, voters reject Prop. 30 on Nov. 6, those education cuts automatically will be triggered by the current state budget that was enacted in June by the governor and Legislature.

In the unlikely event that Munger's measure passes and prevails over Brown's, the cuts still will be triggered. Her income tax increases — $10 billion annually — wouldn't kick in soon enough to save the schools this academic year.

What would be the practical effect? Probably a shortened school year, by two or three weeks, and increased class sizes. That's for starters. At the universities, tuitions again would rise.

There's a lot of cynicism about this by Prop. 30's anti-tax opponents. If the measure failed, they assert, these trigger cuts surely would be rescinded by the Legislature and governor under pressure from the powerful California Teachers Assn.

I'd like to think so. But that seems improbable.

First, there's no other spending program to cut to make up for anywhere near the $6 billion that would be lost in this budget year if Prop. 30's sales and "soak-the-rich" income taxes were rejected. The big money is in education.

Second, borrowing would be irresponsible. (OK, there is ample precedence for such foolishness in the Capitol.)

Third, it's doubtful the governor and Legislature would do what they should have done in the first place: Raise taxes themselves without going to the voters.

There certainly are other revenue sources besides the income and sales taxes. There's the vehicle license fee. An oil severance tax. Tobacco. Liquor. They could close the tax loophole that rewards out-of-state companies for not hiring and building in California if voters refuse to do it with Prop. 39.

But raising taxes would require a two-thirds legislative vote. More problematic, it would necessitate courage and competence — the ability to compromise on a package, say, of taxes and regulatory reform. Therefore don't count on it.

So the pressing issue in this eye-gouging tax fight is whether to whack education funding or to protect it.

But you won't hear that from Brown, let alone Munger.

This governor has been around the track before. He's leery of sounding too threatening, afraid that voters would get their backs up about school kids allegedly being held hostage by the tax-and-spenders in Sacramento.

He's correct, of course. So voters are being denied the truth they don't want to hear.

"Voters always say, 'Don't threaten me, you jerks,'" says Democratic consultant David Townsend, a veteran of many tax campaigns, but not this one. "They think if you're threatening them, you're trying to rip them off."

Brown has read polls and listened to focus groups. He believes his best pitch is to tell voters that the despised Capitol crowd couldn't get its hands on the new tax dollars.