If two budgets weren’t enough, do 3Strategies for getting tax questions on ballot
Not knowing what will happen in four months, most school districts are building two budgets for next year: the good one, if voters in June agree to extend $11 billion in temporary taxes, and the bad one, in case they don’t. Steve Rhoads thinks they should create a third: the (really) ugly. Create that one on the assumption, he says, that the defeat of taxes will result in much bigger cuts to K-12 schools than the administration and most school officials are open to discussing at this point.
Rhoads, principal consultant for Strategic Education Services in Sacramento and adviser to several large districts, says his advice is a dose of realism.
The good budget, which is what Gov. Brown proposed last month, basically maintains the current K-12 funding level of about $50 billion. The bad budget, with taxes rejected at the polls, would automatically lower funding by 4.4 percent, or $2 billion, because the Proposition 98 funding level – what the state is by law obligated to spend to fund schools – would drop that amount with a drop in revenue. School districts are hoping, without any solid basis, that Brown will limit cuts to that amount. But Rhoads doubts that Brown and the Legislature will cut social services and prisons $10 billion more on top of the $12.5 billion Brown’s proposing already. “It is hard to imagine that we will not be cut more. I would prepare for at least another $2 billion of cuts,” he writes in a memo to clients.
The next two billion would be the most painful, but Rhoads isn’t advising using the plan for its shock value. Districts also have to worry about the Chicken Little effect and voter cynicism. Two years ago, Gov. Schwarzenegger predicted the worst if voters rejected the same tax extension. When they did, he backed off, and the state muddled through with gimmicks.
In his State of the State address on Monday, Brown didn’t talk about dire consequences; instead, he called on legislators to put the tax questions on the ballot so as “not to block a vote of the people.”
At this point, it’s probably premature for doomsday talk. A month from now, when districts issue March 15 layoff notices as part of their “bad” budgets, the impact of severe budget cuts will begin to become apparent. And Brown’s big challenge now is to persuade at least five Republicans in the Legislature to vote to put the tax extensions on the ballot. Guilt-tripping them with knocking kids off medical care and laying off state workers never works.
So what might persuade Republicans – perhaps more than five – to break ranks? Strategists I’ve talked to agree on three points:
- Convince Democrats to pass Brown’s proposed budget with $12.5 billion cuts now and don’t wait until June, as difficult as that may be, as a quid pro quo to Republicans and proof to voters that the Legislature did its part; now it’s their turn.
- Encourage Democrats to compromise and agree to some Republican demands for some regulatory reforms and changes to public pensions. Brown has indicated he’s open to these issues but hasn’t gotten specific yet, at least not publicly.
- Raise the temperature on potentially vulnerable Republicans. Badgered by national anti-taxer Grover Norquist, all but two Republicans elected to the Legislature in 2010 signed a pledge not to support any new taxes. Two years from now, at least for some of them, there will be a political sea change. They’ll have to answer not to conservatives in the Republican primary but to moderate voters in open primaries in which the top two vote getters, regardless of party affiliation, will move on to square off in the general election. And they’ll be competing in newly drawn districts whose boundaries weren’t fixed to preserve either conservative Republicans or liberal Democrats.
Labor unions are already identifying Republicans who might be at risk. Others who care about education funding should, too. One potential target is Republican is Sen. Sam Blakeslee, a newly elected Republican from San Luis Obispo and one of the Republicans who didn’t take the pledge. His district stretches 230 miles along the coast to Saratoga, near San Jose.
One of the new parent advocate groups that have formed over the past year, Bay Area-based Parents for Great Education, has launched a letter drive for parents to contact their Republican legislators, starting with Blakeslee. Executive Director Hoi Yung Poon notes there is little time: The Legislature must vote within six weeks to put the tax extensions on the June ballot.
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