The California School Boards Association and its partners last week took the next step toward putting a $15 billion tax initiative for K-12 schools and community colleges on the ballot, setting up the possibility that two competing tax measures will go before voters in November 2020.
Neither measure’s backers favor that prospect, but neither side is showing any sign of backing down. Both sides see next year’s presidential election, with a large turnout expected in a Democratic state, as an opportunity for higher taxes. The behind-the-scenes maneuvering over the next several months, with what some hope will be mediation by Gov. Gavin Newsom, will determine what will go before voters.
The school boards association, together with the Association of California School Administrators and the Community College League of California, filed papers last week with the California Attorney General for its initiative and expects to begin gathering signatures in a few weeks. Called Full and Fair Funding, the initiative would increase taxes on individuals and corporations earning more than $1 million. It would produce enough money for K-12 and community colleges to raise California’s per-student funding to the national average, according to the sponsors. Its calculations are based on a state ranking system that incorporates California’s high living costs.
The sponsors moved ahead without the support of an organization critical to the initiative’s success: the 310,000-member California Teachers Association, although they did announce a consolation prize. Joe Nunez, the longtime CTA executive director who was ousted from his job earlier this year, and former CTA Associate Executive Director Scott Day, who directed the union’s political campaigns, have agreed to come work for Full and Fair Funding.
Nunez and Day could face a big problem, however, in trying to make inroads with their former employer. The CTA is already a major donor for the other tax proposal, whose backers have been organizing for more than a year and have locked in key supporters.
The Schools and Communities First initiative would be the first serious ballot challenge in 40 years to Proposition 13. The “split-roll” measure would leave Prop. 13’s limits on tax increases for homeowners intact while changing the rules for business and commercial properties. Those properties would be revaluated every three years, raising their assessed value more rapidly, thus producing more tax revenue.
Roughly 40 percent of the projected $11 billion annual tax revenue would go to schools and community colleges, with the rest divided among counties and cities. While the estimated $4.5 billion for K-14 would be less than a third of what the Full and Fair Funding would provide schools, the support for the split-roll tax is broad and deep, with endorsements from dozens of housing, social justice and community groups, public employee unions and local government officials. Besides the CTA, the California State PTA, the California Federation of Teachers, United Teachers Los Angeles and some school district boards also have joined the coalition.
“We think we have a stronger measure because we developed a whole community approach to funding,” said Helen Hutchison, acting director of the California League of Women Voters and a member of the executive committee of the Schools and Communities First coalition. While schools would be the biggest beneficiary, they will not thrive without more funding for housing, health care and jobs, she said. “The teachers I have talked to acknowledge that.”
Last week, in announcing the appointment of Nunez’s successor, the CTA gave no hint of its view of the Full and Fair Funding plan. But in a statement, Joe Boyd, the new executive director, reaffirmed unwavering support for the split-roll tax.
“California educators are engaged and ready to lead the way in closing corporate tax loopholes and funding public schools with our Schools and Communities First initiative. I’m excited to lead that charge,” said Boyd, who previously served as executive director of the smaller of the state’s two teachers unions, the California Federation of Teachers.
Troy Flint, senior communications director for the school boards association, said that the decision to move ahead “was not based on the condition of CTA support” but he was circumspect about what happens next. “Our hope is all education advocates would support Full and Fair Funding; there are 6.2 million reasons to do so,” he said referring to the number of public school students in the state. “However, there is significant interest in this measure from a variety of education advocates, not just the usual suspects.”
The CTA’s State Council, its governing body with nearly 800 delegates, meets this weekend, but the Full and Fair initiative may not come up, said spokeswoman Claudia Briggs. The final agenda won’t be set until close to the meeting, although CTA would not take a position on an initiative unless it qualified for the ballot, she said.
Will the past be prologue?
In November 2012, state voters also faced two tax initiatives on the ballot and passed one: Proposition 30, a temporary tax to raise about $6 billion annually for the General Fund by increasing income taxes on high earners and increasing the sales tax. With Brown threatening a massive cut in K-12 funding if it failed, voters passed Prop. 30 by 55 to 45 percent. The other initiative, Proposition 38, a $10 billion personal tax increase that would have funded early childhood education and K-12, lost badly with 29 percent voting for it. Los Angeles philanthropist Molly Munger underwrote Prop. 38.
Most observers agree that running two tax initiatives on the same ballot is a bad idea — particularly in this case, since the business community is vowing a vigorous campaign against the split-roll measure, if not both initiatives.
“It’s quite possible neither might pass if both are on the same ballot,” said Kevin Gordon, president of Capitol Advisors Group, an education consulting firm. “It’s always easier to vote no, particularly if voters find multiple tax proposals confusing.”
Flint acknowledged that internal polling showed that support for both tax initiatives would decline if they were on the same ballot, although he wouldn’t say by how much. But he said that, depending on the wording, more than 60 percent of those polled said they would favor Full and Fair Funding. And there is room to grow support, he said, since more than half of respondents incorrectly believe that California is already among the highest funded states.
Two polls this year, by the Public Policy Institute of California and the nonprofit PACE and USC, found support for a split-roll initiative in the mid-50-percent range — not a comfortable margin heading into an election. Schools and Communities First is counting on a massive door-to-door voter education drive to win.
Last year, Schools and Communities First qualified its initiative for the ballot, but recently revised the wording, putting it back to square one. It and Full and Fair Funding must collect about a million signatures to qualify — an effort that may cost each about $5 million and take months.
With both sides poised to spend a lot of money, now is the time to turn to Newsom to cut a deal for a single initiative, Gordon said. “Instead of the parties duking it out, what might Newsom back and then help raise money to pass it?” he asked.
It would take a two-thirds majority in the Legislature to place an alternative tax proposal on the November ballot. Ted Lempert, president of the children’s research and advocacy organization Children Now, said he hoped that would happen. “Clearly, two measures are not helpful. This is an opportunity for the governor and the Legislature to put a unified measure on the ballot.” And, he added, to include money specifically for early childhood education as well.
Newsom’s office did not respond to a request for comment.