Thousands of California community college students marched to the Capitol on Monday to protest fee hikes and class reductions triggered by the state's budget crisis.
The students -- estimated to number between 5,000 and 7,000 -- marched several blocks through downtown to the statehouse, demanding that the Legislature reject a proposal by Gov. Gray Davis to double fees at two-year colleges while cutting classes and laying off teachers.
Davis officials have said that the cuts are necessary, and budget experts have noted that they are far from the harshest government service reductions in his plan. The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office said the fee hikes are reasonable in the context of what students pay in other community college systems. Public colleges and universities in California have long been among the nation's most affordable.
Yet the budget cut proposals triggered an angry response from thousands of constituents on the Capitol steps. The demonstration showed the pressures lawmakers face as they seek to close a state budget gap estimated to be as much as $35 billion over the next 16 months.
At the protest were students like Pirikana Johnson, a 23-year-old international business major at Compton Community College who, along with 220 students and faculty members at the school, had traveled by bus overnight to attend the rally. Like many other students at the protest, Johnson represents the first generation of his family to go to college.
State grant programs and current low per-credit fees made it possible for him, he said. Next semester, he plans to transfer to Harvard University.
"I can't leave Compton knowing the next person who comes along in the same situation as I was in will not have the same opportunities," he said.
Under the Davis proposal, $700 million would be cut from community colleges through the next academic year, and fees would double to $24 per credit. The Legislature has already approved a $161-million cut for the colleges, which serve 2.9 million students. According to the Community College League of California, the cost increase under Davis' proposal would push out more than 200,000.
Some lawmakers joined students and activists in railing against the cuts Monday, but few talked about alternatives.
"It's important that, while you say no to cuts, you say yes to taxes," said Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg (D-Los Angeles). "You need to be careful of friends who will tell you they won't cut your budget, but then will cut the health-care clinic down the street."
Indeed, as many as 1 million poor Californians stand to lose medical benefits under the governor's budget plan, which includes significant tax increases.
The governor's plan would generate $8.3 billion in new revenue by raising the sales tax 1 cent, increasing fees on tobacco and hiking the income tax for high earners. Administration officials said that is about as much as the public will tolerate.
But Goldberg and others would like to raise even more in taxes, saying that a state with the fifth-largest economy in the world can afford to get through the fiscal problems without crippling essential government services.
That argument doesn't resonate with Republicans, whose votes are needed to raise taxes and who so far remain united against it.
One state senator who tried to lay out the basics of the state's fiscal crisis was booed off the rally stage Monday. The crowd was not interested in hearing what Sen. John Vasconcellos (D-Santa Clara) had to say about the size of the budget hole and how difficult it could be for the state to climb out of it.
Protesters wanted guarantees that their funding would not be cut. And many lawmakers lined up to deliver, including Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, who denounced Davis' proposed cuts.
Bustamante said that raising fees and cutting back programs is "shortsighted and lacks vision."
Davis spokeswoman Hilary McLean responded with a reminder that Republicans are already rejecting the $8.3 billion in tax hikes proposed by the governor.
"As much as we would prefer not to make these cuts, the budget still has to balance at the end of the day," McLean said.