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Pols Pass Up a Pot of Gold as Rob Reiner Takes the Initiative

There’s a gleaming pot of gold within easy grasp of the governor and Legislature that would help them balance the state’s deficit-ridden books. But it’s looking like the governor’s friend, filmmaker Rob Reiner, will beat the pols to the pot.

This is about using it or losing it.

It is an income tax increase on the wealthiest Californians -- individuals earning more than $400,000; couples making above $800,000. That’s the top 1%. Their tax rate would be hiked from the current 9.3% to 11%, where Govs. Pete Wilson and Ronald Reagan also raised it for a while to erase deficits. It would generate $2.3 billion annually.

Reiner doesn’t want to use the new money to staunch budget-bleeding. He is targeting it for another worthy cause: voluntary preschool for all 4-year-olds.

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“Our education system obviously has been limping along for quite a while,” Reiner says. “This is the first big step to reform....

“The jury definitely is in on quality preschool. It gives young kids a chance to enter school ready to succeed. It levels the playing field. [Ultimately] it reduces remedial education costs, crime costs, welfare costs....

“We can’t get the Legislature to move on these things.”

Reiner began circulating petitions for a ballot initiative last week. He needs to collect about 600,000 voters’ signatures by Jan. 12 to qualify the measure for the June 2006 ballot.

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There’s every reason to believe his proposal will land on the ballot and be approved by voters.

Unlike in the Legislature, where a two-thirds majority vote is required for a tax increase -- and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vows to veto one anyway -- the California electorate can hike taxes on a simple majority vote.

Last November, voters passed an initiative imposing a 1% surtax on incomes over $1 million to expand mental health programs.

If voters will tax the super-rich to treat the homeless, it’s a good bet they’ll also sock a broader base of the wealthy to pay for preschool.

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There are a lot of working moms not only concerned about development of their children’s learning skills but also struggling to pay for day care that costs hundreds of dollars a month.

Under Reiner’s initiative, beginning in 2010, every 4-year-old would be eligible for free half-day preschool, in a public or private institution that met quality standards. Starting in fall 2006, kids in the lowest-performing school districts would be eligible.

But if everybody’s going to benefit, why tax just the rich?

“It’s a revenue stream that hasn’t been tapped,” Reiner says. “It’s accessible....

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“This is such a minor tax for people in my bracket that it’s not even something you’d notice.”

Reiner calculates that the average taxpayer hit by his initiative would pay $8,700 more after factoring in the state deduction off federal taxes. This same person, he says, got a $76,000 federal tax cut from President Bush.

Schwarzenegger and Republicans argue that higher taxes would drive people out of the state.

“I can’t imagine that over this small amount of money people are going to say, ‘OK, let’s leave California,’ ” Reiner asserts, “because we’re taking a very, very big step in improving education, which is essentially the most important way to entice people into the state.”

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Indeed, the latest poll by the Public Policy Institute of California shows that, among likely voters, education trumps the deficit and taxes by 2 to 1 as an important state issue. In April, a PPIC poll found that 60% favored raising income taxes on the wealthiest Californians to provide extra money for K-12 public schools.

Preschool isn’t K-12, but it’s close.

Schwarzenegger is promising to protect people against tax increases. “The choice is simple: Pass Prop. 76 or face higher taxes,” the governor writes in a ballot pamphlet argument for his spending cap initiative that would reduce school funding guarantees.

But the people favor raising income taxes -- at least on rich people -- for schools.

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The problem is, ballot-box budgeting is not good government. It reduces the flexibility of elected representatives to deal with state problems, to choose priorities.

Perhaps that pot of gold should be used for deficit reduction or for K-12 schools -- if only the politicians had enough foresight and courage to reach for it.

Failing that, it’s up for grabs by an activist citizen like Reiner and the electorate.

Reiner did that in 1998 with Proposition 10, raising tobacco taxes to pay for early childhood programs.

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For his latest initiative, Democrat Reiner has pulled together a coalition that ranges from the big Service Employees International Union, which could organize nonteachers at the preschools, to the L.A. Area Chamber of Commerce, because it thinks business needs a better-educated workforce.

The state superintendent of public instruction would oversee the preschools, and they’d be run through the county education boards.

Seeking GOP support, Reiner chose county boards partly because they’re not as influenced by teachers unions as school district boards.

Some pols and pundits suspect Reiner, 58, is jumping on the initiative as a springboard to run for governor. “It’s so, like, tiresome to even talk about this,” he says. “I’m not putting something on the ballot because I’m running for governor next year.”

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How about 2010?

“This is the honest to God truth. I love building things.... If I feel that by holding public office I can get a lot more done ... and I [do] have some very big thoughts about things I want to do ... then at some point it may be something I might do.”

Reiner won’t be running against Schwarzenegger next year. He’ll probably be running off with a pot of gold that the Sacramento pols should have claimed long ago.

George Skelton writes Monday and Thursday. Reach him at george.skelton@latimes.com.

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