The die has been cast.
State lawmakers this week put the finishing touches on a budget that bridges a projected $15.7 billion spending gap and ensures the state will be able to pay all of its bills under one condition: California voters pass a tax initiative in November.
If voters don't comply, then the spending plan signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown on Wednesday becomes fiction — a particularly dark brand of fiction for public education.
Here's an example. California's public schools must offer a minimum of 175 instructional days. Despite drastic declines in tax revenues in recent years, most school districts have been able to keep it at around 180 days, which is the national average. But if the tax measure fails in November, it would trigger massive additional cuts for public education. One of the changes is that the minimum for school days would be dropped to 160, which would leave California with the shortest school year in the nation — and well behind most other countries.
Most districts would avoid cutting that many days. But given that K-12 education and community colleges face an additional $5.4 million reduction in funding if the tax measure fails, most schools will have no choice but to shorten the year.
The governor's plan calls for avoiding all that by increasing the state sales tax by a quarter cent to 7.5 percent for four years. It also calls for increasing the income tax on people who make more than $250,000 a year. Brown expects his version of the tax initiative would raise $8.5 billion in the fiscal year starting Sunday.
For good measure, lawmakers tossed in a carrot for voters. They've enticed the University of California and Cal State University systems not to raise tuition this next year with the promise of receiving $125 million each — about equal to the tuition increase being planned — if the taxes are approved.
It's not clear whether the university systems will go along with the deal as the CSU system, which oversees Sonoma State and 22 other campuses, has already adopted a 9 percent tuition increase next year, bringing total annual tuition to nearly $6,000. Nevertheless, the goal is to give students and parents some needed tuition relief.
But it's all a gamble. A recent Field Poll has found narrow support for the tax measure among California voters, with 52 percent favoring it while 35 percent are opposed.
Here's another way the state Legislature can up the odds in its favor: Get serious about pension reform.
California is short some $516 billion in meeting its obligations to retirees over the next 20 to 30 years. That's 5? times the size of the general fund spending plan that was adopted this week.
Yet, it's been more than eight months since Brown issued his comprehensive 12-point plan for pension reform and nothing meaningful has been accomplished.
If legislators have any hope of getting voters to go along with a tax measure, they need to act on pension reform.
With it, they prove to voters they're serious about controlling spending and can be trusted that new revenue won't go toward past benefit giveaways to employees. Without it, they make the campaign against the fall tax measure — and against schools — a whole lot easier.