Torlakson begins campaign to protect schools in coming budget fight

State schools chief Tom Torlakson said Thursday that he believes voters would approve tax extensions this year if architects of a ballot initiative framed the discussion around protecting schools.

Torlakson, speaking at his first official press conference since taking office, made the comments in reference to expectations that Gov. Jerry Brown will unveil his proposed budget Monday - which will reportedly rely on voters approving a package of tax increases to help cover the state's $28 billion deficit.

(Californians) will vote for a ballot measure that invests in education," Torlakson told reporters with the admonition that he was not talking specifically of the governor's plan since he had not seen it. "The tax measure, however we phrase that to voters, has to guarantee education protection."

Press reports based on sourced material suggest that Brown's budget will leave Proposition 98 funding largely protected for now in the hope that voters will approve the tax package.

Bob Wells, executive director of the Association of California School Administrators, said if the tax package is part of the budget proposal, he would support it.

"We look forward to being part of a coalition that takes the message to voters that we need great schools in California, it's the foundation of a strong economy and a well-educated workforce, and you do have to pay for it," he said.

The state currently faces a $25 billion shortfall based on the assumption that that temporary tax increases approved in 2009 will sunset and could rise to $28 billion if Congress reduces, as expected, estate tax revenue.

Capitol sources have said that Brown's budget plan includes asking voters to extend those temporary taxes as well as some fees in a special election that would be called in the spring.

If those tax proposals are rejected, the minimum funding guarantee would fall by over $2 billion, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst.

At the press conference, Torlakson and supporters portrayed a dismal state of education, presenting statistics that showed classroom sizes expanding, teachers and administrators facing unemployment, and districts pushed to the edge of fiscal solvency.

Republicans disagree with the doomsday scenario - or at least the proposed solution of how to fix it.

Senator Bob Huff, R-Glendora, said Thursday that school reform needed to come from systematic restructuring at a limited cost to taxpayers.

"The voters are struggling as well, so they want to see that any money they are sending out here is used better. So talking about tax increases right on the get-go is not the right message to be sending to them," he said.

Huff also noted that voters defeated a 2009 tax measure that would have provided an additional $9.3 billion to schools, and more recently supported an initiative that requires a two thirds legislative vote to raise fees on products like oil, cigarettes, and alcohol.

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