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Gov. Might Consider Tax Hike, Aide Says

Times Staff Writer

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s top education advisor said the administration is prepared to consider raising taxes as part of a long-term solution to the problems plaguing California schools.

The statement by California Education Secretary Alan Bersin came in a Dec. 1 speech to the California School Boards Assn. It was posted on the group’s website Friday.

His comments mark the first time any top administration official has acknowledged that new taxes could be needed to restore the quality of state services.

“No one can look at the history of California education over the last generation and not notice we went from first to worst ... and not attribute that also to the per-student revenue limits we now live under,” Bersin said in the speech.

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He pledged to join the dialogue “about what are the conditions in which we can talk to Californians about increasing taxes -- and what are the obligations we will assume in the education world to assure the dollars that are raised are used productively.”

The governor has repeatedly said that raising taxes would only cause more problems for the state.

And other administration officials say that there will be no tax increases in the budget that Schwarzenegger will propose to the Legislature next month.

Bersin’s speech focused on finding common ground between the politically powerful education lobby -- which he said has resisted proposals to hold teachers to higher standards and operate schools more efficiently -- and the anti-tax forces that fight attempts to raise new revenue.

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“Any suggestion that I believe a tax increase is in order now is incorrect,” Bersin said in a telephone interview Friday.

But he added, “We have got to start to create a dialogue in which people look at opponents’ arguments without rejecting them out of hand.”

School officials have been at war with the governor over billions of dollars that they say he owes local districts and over the initiatives he promoted in last month’s special election that would have curbed school spending and changed teacher tenure rules. They welcomed Bersin’s olive branch.

“We have not heard anything like this from the administration before,” said Rick Pratt, assistant executive director of the school boards association.

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“Everything we have heard from them before was about schools having enough resources and just needing to make more efficient use of them. I think this signals that, if the governor gets reelected, there might be a different agenda.”

Kevin Gordon, a lobbyist for several school districts, said the speech was a “clear departure from the rhetoric we have long heard from the administration.” Bersin “is trying to set the stage for a longer conversation,” he said.

Anti-tax Republicans were not pleased.

“If you look at how much money has gone into education in the last 10 years, the problem is not money,” state Senate Republican leader Dick Ackerman of Irvine said. “The problem is how money is being directed and how much isn’t making it to the classroom.... We should get more of it to the classroom, and make better use of it there.”

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Administration officials reiterated that the governor continues to oppose new taxes.

“The governor’s opposition to tax increases continues,” said H.D. Palmer, spokesman for the Department of Finance.

Thanks to a recent uptick in the economy that has left state coffers with billions of dollars more than initially forecast, there is less pressure on the governor this year to stray from his anti-tax pledge.

Palmer, who declined to discuss the specifics of the governor’s budget plan, suggested that some of that extra revenue would be allocated to schools.

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“There is no question there will be more money for schools next year,” he said.


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