Students rarely get the opportunity to vote on whether they want a tuition hike.
But that is exactly how California politicos are framing a vote on Proposition 30 , a measure pushed by Gov. Jerry Brown that would temporarily raise income taxes on high-income individuals and increase the state sales tax to fund various state services.
The proposition is the marquee contest on California’s ballot this November. It will likely affect not just higher education funding, but also state support for K-12 education and public safety. Advocates of the measure have already raised more than $50 million in support of the cause, and opponents have raised roughly $30 million.
Because the state has made avoiding major higher education cuts contingent on the measure’s passage, and because college and university administrators have promised  tuition hikes, cuts in the number of course sections available, and even enrollment restrictions if the measure does not pass, its supporters are hoping that students and faculty members will figure prominently in the effort to pass the measure, which many are framing as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to rectify some state political and budget ills.
“It won’t be a panacea, but it means we’re not going to get out the hatchet and cut everything again,” said Lillian Taiz, president of the California Faculty Association. “This can be helpful in moving us in the right direction. It can stabilize things and make people more willing to invest.”
With less than three weeks until the election, however, there is little evidence  that students in California are ready to hit the streets in support of the measure. Many have expressed a lack of awareness about the measure or what it does, and others are planning to avoid the polls altogether. That might change over the next few days, as politicians and others take to university campuses and airwaves to register voters and turn out the vote.
Bill Clinton, who recently spoke at the University of California at Davis, urged students  to vote for the measure. At the University of California at Los Angeles on Tuesday, Brown told students that “you can avoid that tuition hike” by registering to vote, voting for Proposition 30, and persuading family members and friends to do the same.
“Proposition 30 is an opportunity for the people themselves to not only fix California, but to send a message to the rest of the country that we as a people can invest together in our schools, our community colleges and this great University of California,” Brown said to a crowd of about 250, according to the Los Angeles Times .
The measure’s passage is far from certain. According to a recent poll , 54 percent of registered voters said they would approve the measure, down from 64 percent earlier this year. The governor’s measure is also competing against another tax-increase measure -- Proposition 38 -- that would direct all new revenues to K-12 education. That measure is being pushed and supported financially by Molly Munger, the daughter of Warren Buffett's partner at Berkshire Hathaway, and she is spending heavily to promote it. Many proponents of Proposition 30 fear that voters will confuse the two, or that Proposition 38 will siphon off voters who only want to endorse one tax hike.
Because the governor’s measure is designed to backfill the current budget and does not necessarily equate with new investment in the state’s higher education institutions, there’s a chance that proponents could be disappointed in the results.
California still has several major budget issues it must tackle, including pension costs, health care and a slow recovery, and chances are good that even after passing the ballot proposition, colleges and universities could face cuts and students could see tuition increases within a few years.
More Bad News
As California lawmakers have wrestled with decreased revenues resulting from the 2008 recession and collapsing housing values, the state’s three higher education systems have seen a dramatic decrease in state appropriations. Between 2007 and 2012, state appropriations to higher education declined 21 percent, according to the state’s Legislative Analyst’s Office . This year alone, regardless of the referendum, both the California State University and University of California systems saw cuts of $750 million each.
“Students are frustrated with the state legislature, particularly in terms of the disinvestment from higher education,” said Meredith Vivian, director of government relations for the California State Student Association, which represents students in the CSU system. “They’ve cut so much from public higher education and left it up to the CSU to make these difficult tuition increases.”
Because of the deep cuts, university administrators have tried to compensate by increasing the cost to students and families. Tuition at the University of California campuses is roughly double what it was in 2007. Last year, for the first time, tuition made up a larger share of the institution’s budget than did state appropriations.
California lawmakers have struggled for years to make up for the lost revenue by raising tax rates, but constitutional amendments passed through ballot propositions prohibit tax increases unless two-thirds of the state legislature approves them. Without the votes to pass revenue increases, state lawmakers, led by Brown, passed a state budget in June assuming that Proposition 30 would pass and bring in an addition $8 billion in tax revenue to fill the gap.
Lawmakers included “trigger cuts” that would take effect if the ballot measure did not pass. Those cuts would slash $250 million each from the University of California and California State University systems and $300 million from the California Community College system, several months into the fiscal year.
If the measure fails and those cuts are enacted, administrators said they will likely have to raise tuition rates as soon as the winter and spring terms, as well as curtail their offerings. Administrators at the University of California system, which previously voted not to raise tuition this year, said tuition could go up by as much as 20 percent ($2,400 a year) if the measure does not pass.
At the Cal State system, which increased tuition 9 percent this year, administrators said they might increase tuition another 5 percent ($150 a semester) if the measure fails. If it passes, however, administrators said they system would forgo any additional increases and refund the 9 percent increase.
Proponents of the measure say that if it is not passed, the California State University System might cut as many as 5,500 course sections, which would make it more difficult for students to graduate on time, leading to higher debt loads.
The measure's opponents -- which include the state Republican party and several anti-tax groups -- argue that there's no guarantee that the new revenue generated by the measure will go to schools; that lawmakers might end up spending it wastefully; and that it prevents lawmakers from making changes to pensions and other major state costs. They also argue that the government is using the threat of cuts to education, particularly K-12 education, to turn out voters, and that even if the measure fails, lawmakers will find a way to protect education.
There is a limit to how much the college and university systems can do to influence the outcome of the election. The Board of Regents of the University of California system  endorsed the measure earlier this year. "This initiative is a step towards stability that we simply cannot afford to dismiss," President Mark Yudof said at the time.
The Board is allowed to make such pronouncements, but state law prohibits the use of institutional resources in support or opposition of a ballot measure -- and a number of faculty members and even the systems themselves have been called out for potentially violating that law.
The law doesn't preclude educating students about the measure. Several faculty members have also worked discussion about the ballot measure into their classes, toeing the line of what is acceptable. Some CSU faculty members have given presentations about the ballot measure's potential impact in class, prompting a reminder from the system that "class time and classroom spaces should not be used for inappropriate political advocacy. At California State University at Fresno, a professor asked students to apply the theories of the political philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau to “argue for the virtues of Proposition 30.”
The California State University system itself has also been questioned about whether it is playing politics on the measure. The system is sending letters to all applicants saying that their admission might be contingent on the measure’s passage, a move that is being derided by some as political but that the system said is a necessary precaution in case it must restrict enrollment in the face of cuts.
On their own time, faculty members have become big proponents of the measure. The California State University faculty union, the California Faculty Association, has thrown its weight behind getting the measure passed. There was a chance earlier this year that the union, which was in contract negotiations with the system, would go on strike this fall, meaning they would not be able to devote significant resources to lobbying on behalf of the measure. The system struck a deal with the union in September, averting a strike. Taiz said the union is now “all in” in the effort to support the ballot measure.
Union members gathered signatures to help get the measure on the ballot and are now phone banking and working with students to help them understand the initiative.
“The implications of this initiative are pretty obvious to everybody,” Taiz said. “There’s not a lot of heavy lifting. It’s not hard to explain.”
The major question hanging over the proposition right now is whether students will come out to support it. In 2010, only half of the state’s eligible 18-to-24-year-olds were registered to vote, according to a study by UC Davis's California Civic Engagement Project. That’s compared to 82 percent for the rest of the electorate.
At the same time, a recent poll showed that 60 percent of individuals between 18 and 39 were likely to support the measure.
The millions of students enrolled in the state’s three higher education systems, plus their families, could have a significant effect on the outcome of the measure.
Student groups have made a big push to register their peers. The California State Student Association has been distributing information about how the measure’s passage or failure will affect students. “It’s a hard group to motivate and get involved,” she said. ”They’re taking a full load of classes, they’ve got their personal lives, they’ve got extracurricular activities.” A Sacramento Bee article earlier this week highlighted some of the student apathy toward the measure.
But Vivian said they are seeing success. She relayed a story about visiting CSU-Monterey Bay this month and checking in with one of the voter drives there. “They ask them, ‘Do you know about Proposition 30? Do you know that it could directly increase your tuition next year?’“ Vivian said. “That gets students’ attention.”
Voter registration ends on Oct. 22, and students and faculty said at that point they will switch their energies from registration to getting out the vote.