Ed advocates foresee new era with supermajority

November 8, 2012

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Many education advocates were giddy when they awoke Wednesday. Not only had Proposition 30 passed, with its promise of nearly $7 billion in new funding for schools and community colleges, but in an unexpected outcome, Democrats won supermajorities, two-thirds of the seats in both the State Assembly and Senate. It was like hoping for a pony on your birthday and instead finding a horse with a giant bow around its neck.

Gov. Brown discusses the post-Prop 30 world in a press conference Wednesday. (click to enlarge)

Democrats had been optimistic that they could capture the 27 Democratic seats in the 40-seat Senate, but 54 in the 80-seat Assembly appeared a stretch. But on Wednesday, Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg and Assembly Speaker John Perez proclaimed ­– and Senate Republican Leader Bob Huff, in a statement, agreed – that the Democrats got both. It would be the first time in 80 years that one party had a supermajority, and that time, in 1933, it was the Republicans. (Democrats have the lead in four of five close Assembly contests.)

With a supermajority, Democrats can override a gubernatorial veto, and they can pass a tax or put a tax proposal on the ballot. Until now, they’ve needed a few Republicans to cross over, and, as Brown discovered when he tried to negotiate a tax proposal for the ballot last summer, no Republicans would buck the party’s anti-tax pledge. That’s why he was forced to go the initiative route.

“It was a great election,” gushed Scott Moore, senior policy adviser at Preschool California. “The supermajority is going to allow us to do some government reforms that are going to be really important in bringing the state of California back to economic and social health. It makes it governable again. This state has been ungovernable.”

Moore and Preschool California want lawmakers to restore the nearly $1 billion in cuts from state preschool and childcare programs in the past four years that eliminated spots in early learning programs for more than 100,000 young children.

“This is the beginning of restoring our future and the future promise of California, which is that all children, regardless of who they are and where they grow up, have an opportunity to start school ready to learn,” Moore said.

He’s hardly alone. After four years of big cuts to education, medical care for the poor, day care and preschool funding, advocates will pressure Democrats to raise more revenue to restore funding. Bill Lucia, CEO of EdVoice, a Sacramento education nonprofit,  said that veteran legislators will now come forward with spending bills that have been shunted aside for years. “They’ll say, ‘Proposition 30 passed, so why can’t I have my bill?’” he said.

But after an expensive and close campaign for Proposition 30, Brown, Steinberg, and Perez all sought to tamp down expectations of raising additional taxes – at least this year.

While saying he would not “draw a line in the sand,” Brown said at a press conference, “We have enough money and will spend wisely to get from here to the next election.” And he repeated his pledge that voters, not the Legislature, will decide whether to raise any additional taxes.

“Desires will always outrun available money,” he said. “You have a machine that tends to get overheated or speed up. The governor is a mechanism to slow it down as it tends to speed up.”

EdVoice had been considering suing the state over deferrals, the nearly $10 billion in late payments to schools that disproportionately put a financial squeeze on districts with low-income families. From its standpoint, no new programs should be funded until the state restores on-time payments to schools and “stops using classrooms as an AT machine,” to solve its financial problems by borrowing from districts, Lucia said.

A lack of money and a stalemated Legislature have provided an excuse not to make hard choices over spending priorities. Now, Lucia said, “there is an opportunity for an honest conversation.”

Lucia, Ted Lempert, president of Children Now, and Jill Wynns, president of the California School Boards Association, all agree that Brown’s goal of reforming education finance could become that priority. The governor has proposed a weighted student formula that would distribute more money to disadvantaged students. But the districts that would be potential losers under the weighted student formula, seeing little increases in per-student funding after years of cuts, oppose it. A solution, not yet proposed, would be to raise taxes to fund a simple, fairer system that’s salable to a public that recognizes that schools remain underfunded. CSBA agrees with the principle of Brown’s weighted student formula but not the funding formula and the specifics, Wynns said.

“It’s no secret that our education funding does not match our revenues. With the Democrats firmly in control and the voters clearly saying that education is a top priority, it’s really an opportunity to put California back on track and make us a leader on education,” said Lempert.

Education officials and advocates seem pulled in two directions with the unanticipated twin victories. The angel on one shoulder is whispering that they shouldn’t ask for too much too quickly, but the devil on the other shoulder is reminding them of what schools have lost in the past four years and how long their wish lists have grown. “One of the questions that’s asked is are the Democrats going to overreach? I think when it comes to a children’s agenda, there’s not going to be any pushback and no one is going to say it’s an overreach to make improvements in education, school based health, health insurance,” argued Lempert.

The California Teachers Association, which put millions into passing Proposition 30, is taking the path of prudence for now. Acknowledging that increased funding for pre-kindergarten through the university system remains its highest priority, CTA President Dean Vogel said, “I cannot imagine coming back this year” for another tax increase. And he said that CTA is taking the long view, that it would require 4 to 5 years to build the support to fix the state’s inequitable tax system and to show voters that CTA has an agenda that addresses issues they’re interested in, such as reforming teacher evaluations.

Moore predicted that the new supermajority “is going to open up an era of reform where we can do a lot of the smart government that we’ve been wanting to do, whether that’s in improving our schools or even in allowing our tax revenues to be less volatile.”

Steinberg wouldn’t disagree, though he’s urging caution moving forward.

“I certainly don’t intend to suggest to my colleagues that the first thing we do with out new powers is to go out and seek new taxes,” he said in a press conference Wednesday. “If we talk about taxes at all, we’ll talk about tax reform.”

But then he also suggested he’d be looking for ways to restore Denti-Cal, a dental program for adults cut three years ago. His colleagues may have their own lists.

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