Cutting Deep

Cut. Cut. Cut. That’s Gov. Jerry Brown’s mantra, especially during state budget season — a grim refrain that’s only going to get worse if voters don’t approve higher sales taxes and income taxes on the wealthy in November to cut $8.5 billion from the $16 billion deficit. What’s worse, if this tax measure fails, Brown’s proposed budget plan automatically cuts $5.5 billion from public schools.

So there’s your familiar ultimatum, California: More cuts to public education or higher taxes. The answer is even more familiar: With an in-crisis higher education system already overwhelming its students with tuition increases, our vote goes to the latter.

It’s hard to approve a budget that relies on a decision that hasn’t even been made yet. People will always wonder if there are other places in the budget that could get sliced, so that voters aren’t challenged come election day.

Brown’s proposed budget assumes that voters will approve the tax-hike initiative — deemed the “Schools and Local Public Safety Protection Act of 2012” — that would increase the state sales tax by a quarter of a percent (from 7.25 percent 7.5 percent) and raise income taxes on the wealthy, generating approximately $8.5 billion by the end of the budget year. If voters reject these hikes, there’ll be an even bigger hole in the budget that Brown will need to fill, inevitably, with education funding.

Brown’s back-up plan, should the tax-initiative fail, consists of “trigger” cuts that would reduce funding for schools and community colleges by a staggering $5.5 billion, and higher education by $500 million. He’d also cut popular positions and services such as game wardens, park rangers and lifeguards.

The potential damage is so bad that it seems like Brown concocted it as a tool of persuasion to convince voters to approve his tax proposal anyway. But still, Chief Executive Magazine recently ranked California as the worst state to do business, evidence of the fact that an increase in California’s taxes — already some of the highest personal and corporate income and sales tax rates in the country — will be considered too straining on the corporations and wealthy who supposedly fuel the economy of the state.

Nonetheless, for those afraid that an increase in taxes will be too much of a burden on the 1 percent, remember this: The UC Regents are already planning to vote on a 6 percent tuition hike come fall (before the election)  — another increase that would burden many families of all income levels across the state. If the UC system faces more cuts as a result of Brown’s tax initiative failing, then it can only get worse from here.

Given the grim depths of the state deficit, it’s no wonder that Brown has to take an ax to important programs. In the $91-billion state budget, the governor already made dramatic cuts to Medi-Cal, child welfare, disabilities benefits and the state court system. Frankly, it’s a miracle education has remained untouched. But if voters don’t approve this tax initiative in November, the cutting will only get more ugly.

Which begs the question: What can we afford to lose?

There’s the easiest target (and rightfully so): the justice system. Between 1982 and 2000, California’s prison system grew by 500 percent, and it has continued to grow since. Add the fact that each prisoner — including those jailed for peaceful drug offenses, gun ownership, or non-violent parole and probation violations — costs the state $50,000 a year, it’s clear that we need some serious reform. Perhaps legalizing marijuana would be a good first step, even if Washington might resist.

The bottom line is that we’re in financial crisis. If such politically risky decisions do the job, then they’re well worth it. We just have to be more forward thinking here, rather than relying on the good ol’ standby of pressuring citizens come November. Regardless, voters need to know the consequences of voting “no” on the Schools and Local Public Safety Protection Act of 2012.” It’s not just another tax increase; it’s a vote to preserve education as it stands now — which is, unfortunately, already pretty weak. But no matter what, someone will have to make a sacrifice in this budget battle. Nose goes.