Keep the Car Tax for the Children

Antonio R. Villaraigosa (D-Los Angeles) is speaker of the Assembly

New statistics give a clear and positive picture: California is leading the nation economically, forging new business growth and creating 500,000 new jobs a year. That is good news for California, and it ought to be good news for our children's future as well. But a move by Gov. Pete Wilson and his Republican colleagues could bring this prosperity to a halt.

With a surplus in the state budget of more than $4 billion, I was convinced that we could start to repair the damage done to our schools during the recent recession when we plunged from the top to the bottom in per-pupil spending on education.

Around the state, our children are asked to enter school buildings where the roofs leak, where toilets are broken, where water taps don't work, where there is no air conditioning in stifling summer months and no heat during wet and cold winters.

We are the seventh-largest economy in the world. But we are trying to educate our children in buildings that are not as modern or as safe as the prisons where we house violent criminals.

That is not only repugnant, but it also will leave us ill-prepared to confront the economic challenges that the next century will bring. So that's why I saw this surplus as a great opportunity to reinvest in California, to move our schools at least back toward the national average, instead of being a dismal 37th in per-pupil spending, back into the first tier where California belongs.

But perhaps this dream is not to be. The governor and my Republican colleagues in the Assembly have decided against making this long-term investment in our schools by eliminating something called the "vehicle license fee." Under this proposal, most working-class families would save about $100 or less a year in reduced car registration fees. When fully implemented, it would cut $3.6 billion from our budget every year.

Never mind that this is a tax break mostly for the wealthiest among us: The owner of a 1998 Cadillac Seville would save more than $1,200 under the proposal.

The terrible tragedy of this proposal is that, under the governor's own economic assumptions, it dooms our schools to remain at 37th--or lower--in the nation in per-pupil spending. It means that our kids will never have a full set of textbooks; that we will be unable to hire the number of credentialed and competent teachers we need to accommodate California's growth; that our kids will be forced to go to substandard schools; and that California's high-tech businesses will be forced more and more to look elsewhere for the trained employees they must have to remain competitive.

During the recession, California taxpayers were called upon to shore up the services government provides, and they sacrificed to ensure that the state remained solvent. And it is right that in fatter times, the state should refund some of that tax money back to its source. Last year, we fashioned a $1.5-billion tax cut for Californians, the largest tax cut in California history at that time. This year we are proposing $600 million in additional middle-class tax cuts.

But at some point, we have another obligation, just as sacred, an obligation to our children who are, after all, our future. I believe that time has arrived.

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