By Dan Walters - Sacramento bee columnist
June 10, 2008 - Sooner or later, every battle over the state budget boils down to how much money to spend on schools, and this year is no exception.
It's inevitable because schools consume half of the $100 billion-plus general fund and have a constitutional financing floor, because money debates morph into debates over school performance and because the school lobby, led by the California Teachers Association, is the Capitol's most powerful force.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has become well acquainted – painfully so – with those factors as he has struggled, and largely failed, to end chronic budget deficits. He negotiated a $2 billion reduction in state school aid with the CTA early in his governorship, then clashed bitterly with the union over repaying the funds and a ballot measure that would have indirectly altered the constitutional guarantee. CTA spent tens of millions of dollars to beat up on Schwarzenegger and defeat his measure three years ago.
Schwarzenegger has been reluctant to confront the school lobby ever since, even though budget woes have persisted, but with a struggling economy making deficits wider and his disinclination to levy new taxes, he and the CTA-led Education Coalition are battling again.
The governor's first 2008-09 budget proposal whacked schools by nearly $5 billion from what they would otherwise get under current law, dropping schools under current year spending. School districts responded by issuing tentative layoff notices to about 14,000 teachers and the Education Coalition cranked up its multiweapon political apparatus.
Schwarzenegger pulled back last month, plugging in $5 billion from a convoluted scheme to borrow against future state lottery profits and reducing the hit on schools by a couple of billion dollars. The governor would hold schools to their constitutional minimum in 2008-09, virtually the same dollar amount as the current year, but force them to eat inflation.
Democratic legislative leaders, who have close political ties to the CTA, want to raise state taxes by $6 billion-plus – although exactly how is still a mystery – and thus automatically boost school spending to near what the Education Coalition says is needed to fully finance operations, including inflation.
There is, however, another fillip: Schwarzenegger also has a new version of his twice-rejected plan to tame the budget by giving governors more power to reduce spending, including spending on schools, when revenues fall short.
On Monday, the Education Coalition took another shot at the governor's revised budget, contending that it's $4.3 billion less than what's needed to maintain current programs with cost-of-living increases, even though it meets the constitutional minimum.
"This budget fails to include a cost-of-living adjustment for schools and all education programs, despite the steadily increasing operating costs for local districts," Rick Pratt of the California School Boards Association said in a statement as the Education Coalition met with reporters.
Recent opinion polls tend to bolster the school lobby's position. A May poll by the Public Policy Institute of California found that 62 percent of voters want to protect school financing as Schwarzenegger and lawmakers wrestle with the deficit, and an even newer poll by Field Research found that 80 percent of voters oppose cutting school aid.
Those trends, however, conflict with other Field Poll findings – that voters really don't want to cut any major spending category, even though 63 percent want the budget crisis to be resolved with "mostly spending cuts" and just 26 percent say "mostly tax increases."
If politicians are looking to the voting public for a way out of the dilemma, it's not obvious. Voters evidently reject both big spending cuts and new taxes.