Prop. 76 not the answer for state, school funding

Proposition 76 deserves our resounding no vote on Nov. 8.

To begin with, Proposition 76 is asking voters to approve an amendment to the Constitution of the State of California. While all ballot propositions merit our close attention, we should pay particularly close attention to those proposing amendments to the Constitution. Secondly, the legislative analysts have outlined what the effects of Proposition 76 are likely to be. Not only are these effects potentially dangerous for the fundamental state programs, but they are also inconsistent with the advertising that supports this Proposition.

What is some of that advertising? Supporters claim that Proposition 76 is necessary to limit state spending- “wasteful” state spending.

But this advertising ignores the fact that in 2004, we California voters already passed a proposition – Proposition 58 – requiring that “budgets passed by the Legislature and ultimately signed into law be balanced. This means that expenditures cannot exceed available revenues” (The Official Voter Information Guide, page 25). We already prevent our state government from having budgets that outspend our revenues.

What else does this advertising ignore? It ignores the fact that evaluations such as “wasteful” are highly subjective and difficult to regulate. And the proposition does increase the governor’s authority to make such evaluations, alone, without checks and balances.

The advertising also appeals to an unexamined belief. Spending by itself is not inherently bad. A sound budget, as we all know, combines spending and saving, all the while making judgments about how to make sure these two activities are balanced. Asserting across the board that spending must be reduced ignores questions about where we need to spend money, and when such spending is not only necessary, but also just good – for all of us.

The legislative analysts find that Proposition 76 would not unequivocally “limit the state’s ability to raise taxes to fund spending.” Rather, there would be conditions under which taxes could be raised under this proposition (page 24, ibid).

Proposition 76 takes advantage of the disastrous effects of 2001-2002, when California’s income, like everyone’s, was severely depressed. Proposition 76 has exploited this situation and has proposed a California Constitutional amendment that will override budget and spending legislation that we already have.

Most importantly, Proposition76 will undermine Proposition 98, passed in 1998 by California voters to insure that a crucial share of State spending be allocated to K-12 classrooms and to community colleges (K-14 education).

The amendment would require spending in any one year to be based on averaging the state’s income from prior years. It would also allow any governor to declare a fiscal emergency in any given year and if the legislature does not pass legislation to address the stated emergency within a month, to lower spending more, “at his or her discretion” (page 26, ibid).

But we already do have working and effective limits on general spending that are part of legislation dating back to 1979. And these limits are achieved through the collaboration of legislature and government.

The effects of Proposition 76 on funding for education are complex. But the analysts describing the proposition find that the changes in how spending decisions are made in general, and how Proposition 98 is addressed “would result in a lower minimum guarantee over time compared to current law” (page 29, ibid). In other words, the minimal level of K-14 funding will drift down.

It could even be worse. Funding for K-14 would even more likely be at the mercies of the individual preferences of policy makers. Here’s what the analysts say: “Overall, (Proposition 76)’s Proposition 98-related changes would result in the annual budgets for K-14 education being more subject to annual funding decisions by state policymakers and less affected by the minimum guarantee.” (page 29, ibid).

Very important are the negative effects of the additional spending limits that this proposition would provide for – especially in the context of education, our special interest. But the amendment to California’s Constitution that Proposition 76 would add is even more dangerous, as it shifts decision-making power about spending away from the state Legislature, and into the hands of whoever might be Governor and his or her staff.

We already have spending limits and budget balancing laws. Proposition 76 will not prevent tax increases or insure tax cuts. Spending money that we have on programs that we need is responsible. Our votes of “NO!” to Proposition 76 are crucial.

Sharon M. Klein is a professor in the Department of English and Linguistics/TESL.