Shameless Legislature Should Stop Meddling in Universities

Darrell Steinberg

Have you no shame, Darrell Steinberg?

California's public universities certainly need improvement and advice. They have to deal with a huge decline in public support. They need to find ways to align their programs more closely with the state's workforce needs. They need to do a better job of turning their research into real technological advances for the society.

There are many institutions and people that the universities could approach for advice.

But there is one institution that has no business giving the universities advice.

That is the state government.

But that hasn't stopped Steinberg, the top lawmaker in the state senate, and Gov. Brown and a host of legislators from trying to micromanage the university. Their latest obsession is the salaries that California State University presidents are receiving. The lawmakers think these salaries are outrageous -- and politically problematic -- given the cuts in public support for the universities, and the resulting fee increases to make up the lost revenue. The theory is that it's harder to raise taxes and provide more money for universities with all this news about salaries.

Maybe. But a body as politically unpopular as the California state legislature shouldn't be giving other institutions public relations advice. And there's more than a whiff of cynical, blame-the-victim strategy in these blasts at university presidents.

The universities are having to do things they don't want to do precisely because the legislature isn't providing them money. This lack of public support is not merely the fault of the legislature. The budget system itself -- a system constructed by both parties, the legislature, interest groups and the voters themselves -- guarantees constant cuts in public support to universities.

If the legislature wants to help universities cope with this never-ending budget crisis, great? But using the universities as whipping posts is unhelpful and wrong. Particularly when the governor and legislative leadership refuse to tackle the hard work of redesigning the budget and governing systems so that the universities don't get hammered all the time.

So here's some advice for Sen. Steinberg, Gov. Brown and the meddling legislators. Get to work on fixing the budget system.

And until you do that, when it comes to public universities, butt out.


A $513,415 Schools Promise I Can't Believe

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A $513,415 Schools Promise I Can't Believe

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Students pledge to stop saying the R-word at Radnor High School.

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My wife and I bought a house in the San Gabriel Valley last year because it was in a great school district. Our boys aren't old enough to attend the school yet, but immediately we made a donation to foundation that supports the local schools. And we're already intensely interested in the fate of the elementary school two blocks away, which the boys will probably attend.

That's why a new tool offered up by the campaign for a ballot initiative to raise income taxes for 12 years to fund schools is so powerful. The tool is a calculator that allows you to find your local school -- and see exactly how much -- to the dollar -- that school will supposedly get if the measure passes. It's featured in a new TV ad (embedded below) from the campaign.

My local elementary school would get $513,145 in 2013-14, and even more six years later ($893,111), and 12 years later (1,208,235) when the tax runs out. If you believe the calculator.

Which I don't. You shouldn't either. The numbers are empty promises, for a couple reasons.

The backers of this initiative, however well-intentioned, have no way of knowing how much revenue a particular increase in the income tax will produce next year, much less in 12 years. The only thing that's been predictable about tax revenues in California -- particularly those tied to the relatively volatile income tax -- is that they're unpredictable. A campaign that makes a promise that specific -- when common sense tells you they can't deliver -- is not a campaign that you can trust.

But even more significant, the notion of an increase is misleading because this tax increase -- and new mandate for school spending -- does not take place in a vacuum. This creates a new revenue stream that goes to school districts and some other programs, including a new Head Start-style program at the state level. But the state has a very complicated funding mechanism that remains in place; California also has a broken budget system that ratchets down revenues and ratchets up certain kinds of spending.

It's quite possible that, given the difficulties of governing in such a system, elected officials would find a way to cut other funding sources in school, to compensate for any additional funds that come into the system if this initiative were successful. Voting for this may not lead to a net increase in school funding at all.

All that said, Munger's initiative is no more dishonest in this regard than its competitor, the compromise initiative from Gov. Brown and the California Federation of Teachers. The backers of those initiatives also claim that it will produce money for education, even though they can guarantee no such thing. And in that case, the initiative is written to use tax money as a way to create new funding for education, so existing general fund money that might have to be dedicated to education could be repurposed to other services, particularly on the local government level.

The only thing guaranteed is that California's budget system will make a liar out of anyone who makes specific promises.

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