California Senate Pro Tempore Darrell Steinberg visited Stephen Magagnini’s UWP 104C journalism class last Wednesday. He discussed Jerry Brown’s proposed budget, higher education and a potential special election in June to address extending temporary tax increases. The following is an abridged version of Wednesday’s discussion.
Student: What will California look like if taxpayers don’t vote to extend the tax increases the governor is proposing?
DS: If our Republican colleagues don’t agree to give the voters the say to decide whether they want the second $12.5 billion to be extending the tax increases or not, or if the voters say no, it would require another $12.5 billion worth of cuts in order to honestly balance the budget…
We have a very delicate balance here with the voters, and that is to not frighten people. Frankly, they won’t believe us if we try to frighten them, because we’ve actually done a fairly good job finding patches every year to avoid that kind of reduction in public investment. But what we are doing is asking our Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) to report publicly what the additional $12.5 billion of cuts would look like. They’re due to publish a report over the next several days that will let the facts speak for themselves.
The Aggie: Let’s say the voters reject the proposal in June. Will this result in $2 billion in proposed cuts for the University of California [UC] and California State University [CSU]?
DS: It’s hard to give specific numbers, and the LAO is going to come out with the report detailing the options. But I agree with UC President Mark Yudof and CSU Chancellor Charles Reed: while we have to do our very best to make the first $12.5 billion as manageable as possible, the real battle is to avoid a second $12.5 billion worth of cuts that, by definition, would affect higher education. Higher education and other public services neither need nor deserve that additional hit.
Student: How will students feel the proposed $1 billion in budget cuts to the UC and CSU?
DS: …I don’t know what the UC and CSU will do on the fee side. I do think, in talking with the leaders of the systems, that they’re trying to be even more entrepreneurial about how they can increase the private donation side.
The sad fact in California is that student fees and private donations are higher than the state general fund, in terms of the amount of funding the UC and CSU gets. The general fund used to be the main source of funding for higher education. And because I think we are finally coming to grips with what occurred in 1978 with the passage of Prop. 13, public investment in a whole host of areas including higher education has diminished. I believe very strongly that the pendulum has swung way too far and that it needs to come back to the middle, and higher education needs to be a big part of it.
The Aggie: Republicans have said voters will not approve these extensions in June, since previous efforts to increase taxes failed – such as Proposition 1A in 2009.
DS: That’s a weak argument. The voters ought to have a choice. It’s like saying the Democrats won the legislative majority in 2010, and the people have spoken, so maybe we shouldn’t have elections in 2012. That just doesn’t hold water. There’s a new governor, and everyone agrees there’s no more federal funds and there aren’t other options. I think the people think they should have the choice.
The Aggie: What’s the likelihood that you’ll secure the three Republican votes needed to put the tax extensions on the ballot in June?
DS: My view is that my colleagues on the other side of the aisle are in a difficult position, and that in the end, they will step up and give the people the choice to determine their own futures – which is really all that the governor and the majority party are asking. I’m optimistic that they’re going to provide the votes, because frankly, there’s no other real choice. Nobody will really stand behind $25 billion worth of cuts. They won’t stand behind that level of cuts for education in their districts. Take local law enforcement – the sheriffs, for example, are depending upon these tax extensions to get $500 million worth of funding. That’s a big deal in Democratic and Republican districts. They’re not going to let that go in the end.
On Gov. Brown’s proposal to eliminate redevelopment agencies:
DS: If you were to ask me who the most powerful special interest is in California – it’s the League of California cities. They’ve got city councilmembers and county supervisors who may want to run for the legislature themselves some day. They have been very successful over the years, and in my view, kind of demagoguing this notion that the state of California is balancing its budget on their backs. What they mean is that we’re taking their redevelopment money in order to deal with our problems.
I’ve been one of the most outspoken leaders in rejecting this us-versus-them notion. My constituents care about economic development in downtown, but those same people are sending their kids to the public schools, those same people have parents and friends and relatives who need health care, those same people are sending their kids to community college and the UC and those same people care about the condition of our state highway system. And so I reject the argument that we are doing anything to anybody. We’re all part of this broken system together.
Jerry Brown has put it beautifully, and I’ll repeat it – just prioritize. Is redevelopment more important than making an additional $1.7 billion in cuts to the poor and the elderly and the vulnerable? You can obfuscate it, and say, “well, redevelopment projects create jobs, and you’re taking this money from us.” But I don’t think you can make a credible argument that $1.7 billion is better spent on downtown restaurants and redevelopment than what it would require if we didn’t take that money and cut even deeper, to child care, or education, or higher education or raise your fees that much. And so it’s got to be an honest debate and discussion.
Student: Has the stubbornness of the Republican caucus been frustrating?
DS: Very much so, but I don’t know if stubbornness is the adjective that I would use. There’s a dynamic that goes on not just in California but throughout the country, where politics has in too many ways become a bit of a sport. There’s a place, by the way, for outside interests. That’s not a bad thing. The people who lobby are generally good people and we want that in a democracy because I need to be informed by different points of view. But that’s different from what goes on sometimes in California and throughout the country, where advocacy groups on the extremes essentially tell officeholders that if you compromise in any way, then we are going to do everything we can to get you out of office. And I think that especially exists in some degree on the Democratic side but I think it exists in a pronounced way on the Republican side.
There’s a gentleman in Washington, D.C. by the name of Grover Norquist. He heads an organization that says nowhere, no how, should legislators vote to raise taxes under any circumstances. He and his partners have gotten all but two of our California state senators to sign a pledge saying that under no circumstances would they ever agree to raise taxes. And [he] promises to hold those accountable in the next election if they violate that pledge.
The reason why that’s challenging is for a whole host of reasons, some of them structural and some of them plain economic. We face a $26 billion deficit. The only fair way to deal with that is to essentially cut it right down the middle. To say we’re going to make deep cuts, because we have to. But to say that $26 billion worth of cuts are way too much, and that the other half ought to be done through extending existing tax measures that we passed in 2009.
And the real story here that will play out in California over the next three weeks, maybe four weeks, is whether or not there will be enough Republicans who will agree to Gov. Brown’s call to try to really resolve this budget deficit, and secondly, to do so in the down-the-middle fair way that I described. It’s probably overdramatic to say that the future of California depends on the outcome, but I can tell you that a lot of people’s lives, and the health of a lot of our communities, depends upon the outcome.
Student: You talk about all these cuts to schools. What about prisons?
DS: Prisons aren’t immune from the governor’s budget because it eliminates parole – a state department of corrections function. There may be some money that will be shifted down to local level of government, to try to deal with the offenders who are coming out of prison. But the prison system is overcrowded, bloated and in need of fundamental reform. You can blame the legislature, but the people need to make choices as well. If you want greater prison sentences every time there is a crime committed, then you’re going to increase the prison population. And then if you’re not willing to pay for the increased capacity, you’re going to have prisons, which are 100 percent over capacity. There’s need for some significant reform.
Student: Do you think there’s a disproportionate amount of attention placed on teacher quality? Do you feel like it’s something that’s over-politicized?
DS: I do think they’ve been politicized, and I do think they have become the whole education reform agenda when it should just be a part of the education agenda. It’s politicized because it’s a big fight, and the union is a very powerful force. Sometimes, I don’t agree with them. I think when it comes to education, what’s missing is the debate over the product we’re delivered. Yes, teacher evaluation is important. Yes, developing a methodology to make sure that we’re more thorough in evaluating the teachers is important. Yes, making sure it’s easier to get rid of teachers who shouldn’t be in the classroom is important. That’s all legit, but I want to talk about education and the economy. I want to talk about using our creativity and our research engines at the UC to develop applied ways to teach core curriculum in the high schools, so that every kid has a relevant path to higher education and a high-wage job. I don’t want to talk about, with all due respect, Michelle Rhee [former chancellor of the Washington, DC school system] versus the California Teachers Association or the National Education Association. I may not be on “Oprah”. I respect Michelle Rhee – I think she is a very important voice out there. But, darn it, let’s not allow the political system to narrow the issue. The issue is much larger than this, and I think the public debate needs to reflect that.