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The Preschool-Tax Folly

Let’s repeat: The voting booth isn’t the place to draw up a state budget. For this and other reasons, the universal-preschool initiative being promoted by actor/director Rob Reiner is the wrong approach at the wrong time.

The last thing California needs right now is to raise another huge sum of money -- $2.3 billion a year to start -- that can’t be used to close existing gaps.

Reiner would do that with a higher tax on incomes of more than $400,000 a year. Last November, voters approved a poorly thought-out measure to tax million-dollar earners to fund mental health programs. The line of good causes calling out for a tax on the rich will only get longer.

This editorial page has advocated reinstating higher tax levels on top incomes, but only if the revenue is used to heal the crippled general fund, and only temporarily. With a healthier budget, the Legislature could have a rational discussion about funding more preschool.

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Reiner’s initiative would sock all the money into a reserve where it could not be used for community colleges, healthcare, elder care or any equally legitimate cause. Instead, the money would create free half-day pre-kindergarten for all 4-year-olds whose parents want it.

All that money would produce only a limited improvement in the preschool situation. About 280,000 of California’s 4-year-olds -- 56% -- already go to preschools, either privately or publicly funded. The initiative seeks to raise that to 80%, while putting most children in publicly funded facilities. So in order to get an additional 24% of 4-year-olds enrolled, the initiative would raise state funds to pay for close to double that number who would be in preschool even without the assistance.

Given the dire cuts and anemic funding facing California, it makes little sense to raise and spend public sums for the quarter of a million children who don’t need the help. Better to put the money in the general fund, where a portion could be used to subsidize preschool for more disadvantaged children. That’s one of the many problems with creating programs through the initiative process -- there’s no flexibility to make the funding fit the needs of the day.

Reiner might be partly motivated by an ambition to become governor, but he is a real children’s advocate who is right to push the importance of preschool. Preschool can have enormous benefits for disadvantaged children, through early exposure to English and improved readiness for kindergarten classes that are increasingly rigorous.

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That’s why this page -- despite misgivings about ballot-box budgeting -- endorsed Reiner’s 1998 cigarette tax to provide preschool and other programs for young children. But the cigarette tax was a revenue stream separate from the income and real estate taxes that should funnel into the general fund. The 1998 initiative was flexible enough so that all the money could be put to good use, depending on the need. And the state’s economy and budget were in much better shape then.

Reiner shouldn’t stop harping on the value of preschool. But tying the state budget into more knots isn’t the way to provide it.


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