In recent weeks, college students across California have been inundated with TV, radio, and Internet ads in the governor’s race. Young people have come to understand how their votes on Nov. 2 will influence higher education funding and whether California will properly prepare their generation for the new global economy. But what they might not realize is the significance of one ballot proposition that may very well have a larger impact on education than the result of the governor’s race: Proposition 25 is actually the most important vote for students.
The most frustrating aspect of the debate over higher education funding in California is that cuts continue to be made while the overwhelming majority of Californians are opposed to the cuts. A poll conducted by the non-partisan Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) in Nov. 2009 showed that 89 percent of Californians are concerned about increasing fees and 70 percent oppose cutting higher education. Perhaps even more interestingly, a majority of California legislators are also opposed to cuts. In the 2009 budget negotiations, when California eventually made the massive cuts to higher education that caused the 32 percent UC student fee increase, the Democratic majority in the Legislature originally proposed a budget that would have avoided these massive cuts by implementing an oil extraction tax to raise revenues. Why then were the cuts implemented when a clear majority of Californians and a clear majority of the elected legislators opposed them?
The answer rests with California’s two-thirds vote requirement to pass a budget and raise revenues. California is one of only three states that require a two-thirds majority to pass a budget, and the only state that requires a supermajority to both pass a budget and raise revenues. This two-thirds rule has caused the decades of gridlock in Sacramento that have coincided with decades of state disinvestment in higher education. This rule has given disproportionate power to a minority of legislators who have stubbornly opposed making the investments in higher education that are supported by the public. The fundamental problem with public higher education funding in California is therefore not a lack of political will among the public or the officials that they elect. The problem is the structural dysfunction of our political system. Democracy in California is broken and students are bearing the cost.
Thankfully, voters have an opportunity to begin to fix this dysfunctional system on Nov. 2. Proposition 25, the Majority Vote Budget Initiative, would lower the two-thirds requirement to a simple majority necessary to pass a budget. This structural change would put the majority of legislators who support higher education funding back in charge of the budget process. Proposition 25 would also prevent legislators from receiving pay or benefits for each day that the state budget is late. Both of these changes would ensure that future budgets are passed on time, which would save hundreds of millions of dollars that otherwise would have been wasted on the cost of late budgets and instead could be invested in higher education.
When students head to the polls on Nov. 2, they must consider the important differences between the gubernatorial candidates and the impact that Schwarzenegger’s successor will have on student issues. But they should also keep in mind that the budget proposals made by any governor have to make their way through the legislature, and that’s where the current system is stacked against higher education. Electing a pro-student governor would improve the state of higher education for a few years, but reforming the budget process would have a positive impact for decades.
Ultimately, the solution for restoring funding to public higher education would be to lower the two-thirds requirement for raising state revenues, which would allow for the large scale investments needed to revitalize our college and universities. However, restoring majority rule for passing budgets is an important first step that will put California back on a path to good governance and will benefit college students for years to come. Sometimes the least sexy reforms are the most important.
IAN MAGRUDER is a junior at UC Berkeley and president of the California College Democrats, the statewide organization representing more than 30 College Democrats chapters across California.