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Universities v. prisons is not a real choice

Submitted by on Friday, 29 January 2010 No Comment

You have to wonder if the fumes from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s famous cigar patio are starting to affect his thinking.

Why else would someone who for years has battled California’s wacky budget process suggest making the system even wackier with a constitutional amendment that would require increases in college spending along with corresponding cuts to prisons.

“Choosing universities over prisons,” Schwarzenegger said in State of the State address. “This is a historic and transforming realignment of California’s priorities.”

That’s nice idea in theory, and one could even argue that if we’d been spending more on education all along there wouldn’t be a need to spend as much on prisons.

Except every time someone in California comes up with a brilliant, and politically popular, idea like this it winds up biting future generations in the butt.

First there was Proposition 13. It had the noble-sounding name of “The People’s Initiative to Limit Property Taxation,” and it did indeed do that for people who owned property in California at the time. Those who have purchased since have looked with envy at their neighbor’s paltry tax bills.

Prop 13 also included another piece of policy brilliance – the requirement that all revenue and tax bills pass the Legislature by a two-thirds vote – that led directly to the budget mess we have today, where there’s a premium on doing what can get enough votes even if it’s wrong.

A decade later, there was the “oops, we didn’t mean to do that” Proposition 98, which guaranteed a minimum level of state funding for education after Prop 13 tied local governments’ hands.

Californians had not, of course, learned their lesson about legislating by ballot. In 1996 voters approved Proposition 184, the ever-so-popular “three strikes, you’re out” get-tough-on-crime law. That led to a nine-fold increase in California’s prison population in a decade. According to the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Officer, more than half of the “third strikers” were nonviolent offenders.

To review, Californians voted to severely limit property taxes and then they agreed to incarcerate as many people as humanly possible. And to think that someone out there is wondering why the state has to keep spending more and more money on prisons.

Ay, but the Governator has the answer to that! Tie the state’s hands, yet again, by requiring that California spend no less than 10 percent of its general fund on higher education and no more than 7 percent on corrections. Oh, and he also wants to prevent the state from releasing prisoners early to achieve his goals.

Bad idea, the Legislative Analyst says.

The Legislature already can set that cap/floor any time it chooses to. The governor’s plan “inappropriately pits two program areas against each other,”the report says. And it would shower money on higher ed without any defined goals. One would hope it wouldn’t go to administrator salaries, but there’s nothing in Schwarzenegger’s proposal to stop that.

Inappropriate and policy foolish? Yes.

Potential popular and, thus, politically wise? Likely, unless Californians can learn to make better choices than we have every time in the past two decades that the latest political bandwagon has rolled onto the ballot.

Copyright 2010 Debra Legg. All rights reserved.

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