School initiative's bumpy road to the ballot box

October 24, 2012

The thicket of obstacles Governor Brown and his allies have run into in trying to convince voters to approve his initiative to raise funds for schools and the state budget underscores the extreme hazards of trying to convince California voters to raise taxes, even for a cause they’re predisposed to support.

A combination of an unexpected and bitter rivalry among pro-education forces that should have been allies, greater than expected and deeper-pocketed opposition to the Brown initiative, and voters still struggling to cope with the enduring economic downturn in a state that reflexively votes against tax increases have all conspired to make it impossible to predict victory on November 6.

Instead, school officials and other education advocates are filled with a sense of dread that neither Prop. 30 nor Prop. 38, the rival initiative sponsored by civil rights attorney Molly Munger, will get the simple majority they need on November 6, resulting in an automatic $5.4 billion in “trigger cuts” to schools and community colleges.

The PPIC poll released Wednesday affirms their fears. For the first time, support for Prop. 30 among likely voters has dipped below 50 percent – to 48 percent – while only 39 percent say they will support Prop. 38, the Munger initiative.

That represents a significant shift in public attitudes from when Brown first presented his plan almost a year ago.

A PPIC poll last December showed that 60 percent of likely voters supported his core idea of raising income taxes on people earning $250,000 and bumping up the sales tax by a half cent.  Based on California’s history, that represented just about the maximum number of voters who could be expected to support a tax increase of any kind.

At the time, the field of school funding initiatives was crowded with two others, the California Federation of Teachers’ so-called “millionaire’s tax” and the Munger initiative, supported by the California State PTA, which Munger had announced a month earlier.

To the huge relief of education advocates, in March Brown combined his initiative with the CFT’s “millionaires’ tax” initiative, which at the time was receiving even higher levels of voter support. The merged initiative reduced the proposed sales tax increase to a mere 1/4 cent, while raising rates on high income earners. Perhaps not surprisingly, a USC/Dornsife poll at the time showed voters supporting it even more strongly than Brown’s original proposal – an almost unheard of 64 percent of likely voters indicated they would vote yes.

The outlook for victory in November could not have looked brighter.

But since then support for Brown’s initiative has trended downwards. A  Field Poll in July showed only 54 percent of voters supporting it. By September the number was “scarily close” to 50 percent, in the words of Field pollster Mark DiCamillo.

When Brown and the California Federation of Teachers  merged their initiatives in March, many education advocates hoped the same would happen with the Munger initiative. Or a truce would be declared. It never did. Unlike the CFT, which bowed to the reality that it would not be able to raise the funds needed to mount a full-scale campaign on behalf of its initiative, Munger, the daughter of billionaire and Warren Buffett lieutenant Charles Munger, felt no such pressures.

Instead, the vitriol between the two campaigns increased.  It reached a point where Munger accused Brown in a TV interview a few weeks ago of being “utterly deceptive” in suggesting in his ads  that all funds raised by his initiative would go to schools.

Her ads lumped Brown among “Sacramento politicians,” implying that his initiative was simply a scheme to siphon off funds for unspecified governmental purposes.   Within days she was convinced to withdraw the ads.

On either side were education advocates with the same good intentions to raise funds for California’s struggling schools, resulting in a rivalry that could well contribute to confusion among voters. That in itself could make them more likely to vote no on both initiatives.

What also could not have been predicted was the potency of the opposition that would emerge to Prop. 30 from anti-tax and anti-union forces, perhaps because of the major backing it has received from the California Teachers Association and many other unions. Another unexpected development was that some of the same forces opposed to Brown’s initiative also became active supporters of Prop 32, the hot-button initiative that will make it more difficult for unions to contribute to political campaigns.

Until this fall, the pro-Prop. 30 forces were way ahead in the fundraising stakes, and Brown continued to work on mitigating California’s anti-tax reflex. In September, the California Chamber of Commerce, breaking with its tradition of opposing virtually every tax increase, decided to remain neutral on the issue. An exuberant Brown said its decision had “cleared the way for victory” for Prop. 30. For a while, it  looked like Brown might  make it through to election day with a major fundraising advantage.

But the new landscape of political fundraising, which allows for almost unlimited, anonymous contributions, and the ability of the superwealthy to change the direction and outcome of a campaign by dipping into their own bank accounts whenever they wish, soon kicked in.

Multibillionaire Jerry Perenchio, former head of the TV network Univision, along with John Scully, former CEO of Pepsi and Apple, chipped in. But their contributions paled in comparison to those made by none other than Charles Munger Jr. – Molly Munger’s brother – who has poured nearly $23 million into the combined anti-Prop. 30/pro-Prop. 32 campaigns.

And last week a Phoenix nonprofit corporation called Americans for Responsible Leadership gave $11 million to the California Small Business Action Committee, a leading force in the dual campaign in favor of Prop, 32 and against Prop. 30.

Adding to Brown’s difficulties is that he is waging this campaign at a time when California’s economy is still struggling to recover from the Great Recession, making voters more skittish than ever about having to pay more in sales taxes.

The anti-Prop. 30 campaign is now understandably focusing on the proposed sales tax increase, which affects all Californians, rather than the income tax increases on high earners. One mailer sent out this week by the Small Business Action Committee, for example, emphasized that Prop. 30 would bring California “the highest sales tax in the country” and make “everyday items that families need, like gas and clothes” more expensive.

According to the PPIC poll, 8 percent of likely voters have yet to make up their minds on Prop. 30, down from the 11 percent undecided on last month’s Field Poll. But those hoping that undecided voters will vote for their measure shouldn’t count on it. The Field Poll’s Mark DiCamillo said that of voters who by now haven’t been sold on the arguments on the “yes” side, “most of them end up resolving the conflict by voting no.”

Said the Field Polls DiCamillo, “The burden of proof on any proposition is always on the ‘yes’ side, because generally speaking, a proposition is intended to change the status quo. Voters have to be convinced of its worthiness. They don’t give either side the benefit of the doubt.”

The cumulative effect is that supporters of both Prop. 30 and Prop. 38 are fighting a do-or-die battle to convince voters to approve tax increases to underwrite a public education system that continues to fall behind many other states – hoping for the best while bracing for the worst.

Confused about the similarities and differences between Props. 30 and 38? Check out this first-of-its kind EdSource infographic

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