LOS ANGELES — Facing a high-risk election next month, Gov. Jerry Brown kicked off a campaign swing Tuesday to win support for a proposed tax increase that he promises will invigorate California universities trapped in cycles of cutbacks and tuition increases.
Appearing at an outdoor plaza at UCLA, the Democratic governor said he recognized the state was in tough economic times — a statement that appeared aimed at voters who might be uneasy about sending more tax dollars to Sacramento when household budgets are stressed, most recently by runaway gas prices.
Brown argued that to make California exceptional, taxpayers need to open their wallets to strengthen the next generation. Brown avoided mentioning specifics of his Proposition 30, which would boost the sales tax by a quarter cent for four years, while income taxes for people who make more than $250,000 a year would be raised for seven years.
"A lot is riding on this election," Brown told several hundred students gathered on an outdoor plaza. "This is not just about a tax. This is also about California."
Brown has made passage of the proposal his top priority, but recent polls have found only tepid support from likely voters, with many others undecided. He alternately expressed confidence and a sense of urgency that students get involved and push friends and family to vote so tuition would remain in check.
"My plea to you is don't be complacent. We can win. ... You can avoid that tuition hike if you get out and do some things," Brown said. "I'm going to go up and down the state and mobilize everybody I can."
A statement from the committee opposing the tax increase, No on Prop 30, said state colleges and universities "won't see a dime" from the proposal, if approved. The threat of lost school funding "was concocted by politicians to scare voters into approving this massive tax increase," it said.
It was Brown's first public campaign appearance since August for the initiative, which if rejected calls for $6 billion in spending cuts, mostly to K-12 schools.
Students in the crowd were overwhelmingly in favor of the proposition, saying they feared another round of higher costs.
Years of state budget cuts have led to skyrocketing tuition and reduced course offerings at California's two- and four-year colleges. Undergraduate tuition in the UC system is $12,191 this year, not including room, board, books or campus fees. In the 2000-01 academic year, UC's base tuition was $3,429.
"I've seen tuition prices go up and up," said library science graduate student Kelsey Knox, 22, who said she had worked as a dormitory adviser to help make ends meet. "Education is something we need."
At one point Brown gently taunted at handful of students who chanted "Down with Brown" and held up signs calling for defeat of the proposition.
"Hey, that's pathetic," he said when he urged them to chant in unison.
Jake Akers, a 19-year-old history and Russian language student holding a "No on 30" sign, said he was weary of mounting debt and irresponsible spending in Sacramento.
"To ask for even more money is ridiculous," he said.
Brown defended television commercials that misstate how billions of dollars could be spent and claim the money "can't be touched by Sacramento politicians."