It’s a Nice Gesture, But Won’t Rewind the Past

    Illustrations by Stefany Chen/Guardian

    Looks like those picket signs didn’t go unnoticed in Sacramento after all.

    In his final State of the State address on Jan. 6, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (R-CA) made a monumental announcement: Not only does he want to restore $305 million in lost UC funding for the 2010-11 academic year, he also wants to make sure state-prison funding never exceeds that of higher education.

    It’s refreshing to know that all students’ efforts to protest fee increases and budget cuts weren’t for naught. The governor’s aids even said the tipping point for Schwarzenegger was all the angry mobs across UC campuses this year.

    But let’s not break out the celebratory bottles of Andre just yet.

    First, we can’t forget these promises are coming from a leader who has enacted persistent slashes to higher-education funding every year in office (save 2006 — his re-election year).

    Naturally, Schwarzenegger doesn’t want to go to down in history as the man who ruined the best public university in the world. But pressing the “rewind” button on six years’ worth of comprises to education will be no easy task — especially not for a lame duck.

    And in reality, the governor’s promise is light-years from becoming realized. Democrats in the state congress oppose his proposed cuts to welfare programs, and his fellow GOP members aren’t too fond of increasing university funding.

    And although Schwarzenegger insists that this $20 billion-lighter budget won’t involve raising taxes, he’s also counting on a $6.9 billion increase in federal funding to balance it all out, which — with the national economy barely treading the first steps of its rebound — is anything but a safe bet.

    In the speech, he expressed contempt at the fact that, in the last 30 years, funding for higher education shrank from 10 percent of the state general fund to 7.5 percent, and prison funding has swelled from 3 percent to nearly 11 — an imbalance of priorities if we ever saw one.

    Yet he predictably failed to recognize how much of that happened on his watch. Since Schwarzenegger’s term began six years ago, university funding has dropped 9 percent, while prison spending is up 32 percent.

    Now, to reverse the damage that’s been done, the governor has also called to privatize a portion of our prisons — freeing up money in the budget for higher education.

    While passing part of the prison system off to corporations might seem a good way to lighten the state’s load, it’s not nearly so simple. Private prisons contract corporations to watch over inmates. Like any other business, they’re in it for the money; the more beds filled, the more money in their pockets. What’s more, studies from other states that have tried privatization have shown that they don’t always save the state money. In fact, in Tennessee, the state legislature estimated in 1998 that operating a private facility was as pricey as running two public prisons.

    The real reason our prisons have become such an expensive burden is that they’re so overcrowded. If Schwarzenegger wants to make our prisons cheaper for the state, he should start by reconsidering the three-strikes and drug laws that have bloated prisons past maximum capacity.

    As much as we’d like to top off our plastic champagne flutes and toast to our new friend in high places, this board also recognizes the governor’s promises are riding on a long shot. We appreciate Schwarzenegger’s effort to reprioritize UC funding, but his plan to privatize prisons is hardly a surefire path to savings.

    So until we see a proposal that both drums up legislative support and responsibly addresses the prison-system issue, we’ll remain grateful — and skeptically optimistic.

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