Voters Reject Preschool Tax Measure

Times Staff Writer

Voters rejected a ballot measure that would have taxed the wealthy to provide free preschool for all California 4-year-olds, while a $600-million library bond issue appeared headed for defeat early today.

Proposition 82, the universal preschool proposal created and bankrolled by Hollywood filmmaker Rob Reiner, was designed to raise an estimated $2.4 billion annually by taxing individuals who earn more than $400,000 and couples who earn more than $800,000.

Shortly after 10 p.m. Tuesday, Reiner acknowledged to a crowd at Los Angeles’ Westin Bonaventure Hotel that Proposition 82 was not faring well.

“But it doesn’t matter,” he said. “Win or lose, we have raised the profile of the importance of early childhood education and preschool in this state, and it will never go away.”

To those who didn’t like the initiative, Reiner said: “Help us come up with another way.”

The measure envisioned free half-day preschool at public schools and private learning centers for all children, regardless of family income. Opponents, who raised about half as much money as supporters, argued throughout the campaign that the measure was well-intentioned but fatally flawed.

The billions of dollars it would raise would be better spent on the state’s public schools, they said, instead of providing a subsidy to the middle-class and well-off who can afford to pay for preschool.

Allan Zaremberg, president of the California Chamber of Commerce and co-chairman of the opposition, said internal polling in recent days showed that likely voters opposed the measure. “The more they found out about it, the more they were inclined to vote no,” he said.

In one early poll, voters said they strongly backed the measure, with two-thirds saying they would support Proposition 82 days after it qualified in January for the ballot.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was among the measure’s most visible supporters, appearing in both English- and Spanish-language television commercials.

But as the campaign progressed, support dropped.

Controversy arose over Reiner’s dual roles as chairman of the First 5 California Children and Families Commission and creator of Proposition 82.

He initially took a temporary leave as chairman of the state commission after The Times reported that the panel had spent $23 million on ads touting preschool as signatures were being gathered to place Proposition 82 on the ballot, and resigned from the post in March.

After that, Reiner was noticeably absent from the campaign.

By late May, support for the measure had dropped to 51%.

John Pitney Jr., a government professor at Claremont McKenna College, said support for ballot measures tends to dip as voters learn more about them.

“There often is a tendency for measures to lose support but not this dramatically,” he said.

Key political opposition came from Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Democratic Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata.

Proposition 81, the library bond measure, was placed on the ballot after a 2004 compromise by the Legislature and the governor. It offers modest help to local library systems struggling to keeping pace with the state’s rapid population growth.

Former state Sen. Dede Alpert, who helped draft the measure, was deeply disappointed by its apparent defeat.

“Usually for library bonds, you have to count on the good will of the voters,” she said. “Obviously, the mood of the electorate was not to vote for things that cost money this go-round.”

With the backing of teachers, businesses, organized labor and the state’s major newspapers, Proposition 81 had many allies.

Opponents, such as the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn., argued that borrowing is not an economical way to fund new library construction.

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Times staff writers Noam Levey and Patrick McGreevey contributed to this report.