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'No Good Options'

May 18, 2009

Seldom have higher education officials lobbied so hard for something that may not be in their ultimate best interest, but these are strange days in California.

As Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger laid out dire budget cuts for the state Thursday, based on updated (and deteriorating) financial conditions, leaders of the state’s two university systems renewed calls for voters to pass a series of ballot measures that will minimize the cuts. But at least one of the measures is viewed by critics as something of a Faustian bargain, securing tax revenues in the near term while capping potential appropriations for colleges and universities in the long run.

California State University Chancellor Charles Reed has pledged his support for all of the ballot measures, but he conceded in a news release that “there are no good options.” The question of which is the worst, however, remains a matter of debate.

The severity of cuts for state agencies, including colleges and universities, will be significantly less -- while still painful -- if Californians approve six ballot measures Tuesday, according to Schwarzeneger. If the measures fail, California will have to trim $21.3 billion from its budget, compared with $15.4 billion if they pass, the governor said Thursday.

Of the six ballot measures Californians will vote on Tuesday, the first has become the most contentious in higher education circles. Proposition 1A extends for two years a recently enacted tax increase, which would bolster university coffers. At the same time, however, the measure caps future state funding. The cap stands to put a permanent chokehold on higher education by limiting future spending to the state’s existing tax base, according to the California Faculty Association, which represents 23,000 faculty and other employees at California State.

The divisions over Proposition 1A aren’t just within California State University, where the leadership’s position differs from that of the union. Also taking opposite sides are the California Faculty Association, which is affiliated with the National Education Association and the American Association of University Professors, and the California Teachers Association, an NEA-affiliated union which represents 340,000 education employees, including community college professors.

The two unions have joined forces in years past, opposing proposed caps on state spending. Loyalties changed, however, when Proposition 1B was put on the ballot. That measure would restore $9.3 billion to K-12 schools and community colleges so long as Proposition 1A passes, thereby earning the California Teachers Association's support.

“This time the governor bought off K-14 with a second proposition, so the whole thing is this delicately balanced effort to divide the voices,” said Lillian Taiz, statewide president of the California Faculty Association.

The CTA says it supports the measures for reasons larger than its parochial interests. The proposals stand to "stop California's economic decline" and "hold politicians accountable" by prohibiting pay raises for lawmakers in budget deficit years, according to the union.

Proposition 1A’s supporters , which include the Community College Association, say that failure to pass the measure will lead to $16 billion in total cuts to education. That potential cut is but a piece, however, of the troubling outcome higher education leaders predict if the ballot measures aren't approved.

For the University of California, revised budget scenarios suggest cuts for 2009-10 will total $322 million, or 10 percent, if the ballot measures fail. Even if the measures pass, university officials expect $240 million in cuts.

As for California State, officials there anticipate a cut of $410 million, or 10 percent, if the measures fail, compared with $292 million if voters approve the measures.

For community colleges, budget reductions are expected to total $939.9 million if the measures fail, as opposed to $758.8 million if they pass. Constance Carroll, chancellor of the San Diego Community College District, issued a statement Friday that said the college is "sailing into a gathering storm." The bleakest budget scenario laid out by the governor could eliminate enrollment growth completely for the college in the next academic year, Carroll wrote.

Despite the dire projections for colleges and universities, voters appear to have little appetite for the ballot measures, according to recent polls. Indeed, only measure 1F, which would freeze lawmakers' salaries in budget years, has majority support, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.

Program Cuts, Layoffs on Table

Leaders of California universities, already fatigued from cuts this year, anticipate more painful choices ahead given budget projections. The University of California, which has already reduced freshman enrollment targets by 2,300 students, is considering further reductions. Cuts in academic programs, mental health services and pay cuts or furloughs for employees are also possibilities.

For California State, the worst case budget scenario of a $410 million reduction would be the equivalent of reducing enrollment by 50,000 students or laying off between 4,000 and 5,000 employees, according to a news release.

Steve Dixon, vice chairman of external affairs for the California State Student Association, said students are growing weary of paying more and getting less.

“I put a lot of blame on the Legislature, which has just completely and utterly failed to fund higher education in the way they have promised [they would] for decades,” said Dixon, a student at Humboldt State University.

The student association, which represents 450,000 California State students, has not taken a public position on the ballot measures. While the measures have the potential to lessen the blow to higher education this year, it’s difficult to cheerlead for proposals that don’t address the root of California’s problems, Dixon said.

“Most people who are supporting 1A and 1B, they are holding their nose and doing it,” he said. “This is really a temporary fix to an institutional problem.”

 

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