GOP budget plan protects schools, creates problem for Dems

Assembly Republicans offered a budget proposal Thursday that would allow most schools to maintain the current instructional year, class sizes and most existing teacher positions.

Although the plan would suspend payment to a popular program supporting low-performing schools, it would fund Proposition 98 to the same level as last year while directing big hits elsewhere including state worker salaries as well as health and welfare programs.

And there are no new taxes.

The move comes just days before Gov. Jerry Brown releases his revised May budget, creating a big political problem for the administration which has been arguing for months that the only way to avoid draconian cuts to schools was for new taxes to be approved.

Democrats and the governor had carefully constructed their campaign around the notion that teacher layoffs, larger class sizes and a reduced school year would motivate voters to approve tax extension on income, sales, and vehicles.

By protecting schools in their no-tax budget plan, Republicans at least raised a big question about the Democratic strategy - if not poking a hole in it.

The question now is what Brown will ask of schools in Monday's rollout.

Republicans say their proposal is workable.

The key point with these ideas is that you can accomplish a budget, a prudent budget that has long term implications, without tax increases. That's the fundamental point," said Assemblyman Jim Nielson, R-Biggs, at a press conference Thursday.

Neither the governor nor either of the two Democratic legislative leaders issued formal response to the GOP proposal by press time, although Assemblyman Bob Blumenfield, D-Van Nuys, chair of the Assembly Budget Committee, said he was pleased to see that Republicans agree on the need to protect education.

"Finally, we have a Republican plan on paper," he said in a statement. "I've been asking for this since January."

David Sanchez, president of the California Teachers Association, called the plan a gimmick noting that most of the estimated $15 billion shortfall is covered by cuts.

"The Republican's proposal from today shows they are clearly out of touch with what California students need, and is built of the same gimmicky principles that have plagued California's budget process for years," he said in a statement. "While I'm glad they have issued a press release promising to protect public education funding, I'm insulted that they think their plan will do that. It's a deliberately misleading and tardy scheme designed to trick voters into thinking it's a real solution."

Key to the Assembly GOP plan is the assumption state revenues will continue to rise through 2011-12. The plan relies on $2.5 billion being collected both this year and next - a forecast that the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst does not take exception to.

That said, a spokesman for the state Treasurer, pointed out that the plan does little to mitigate longer term budget obligations such as repaying deferred school payments or the Proposition 98 maintenance factor.

It's worth noting that since Proposition 98 was suspended in 2010-11, this year's increase in revenues does not subsequently increase the required spending level for public education. However, it does increase the maintenance factor, which must be repaid in healthier economic times.

Schools would also experience a $288 million reduction under the Republican plan due to a complex recalculation of Proposition 98. The cut comes from using a larger number of pass through' property taxes provided by redevelopment agencies to offset revenue limit funding. This results in less funding from the state.

In addition to myriad cuts to other services, the plan would also redirect funds for early childhood programs and mental health, Proposition 10 and Proposition 63, respectively. Republicans said that move would require voter approval.

For a savings of $450 million, Republicans also propose to suspend QEIA. The program was the result of a 2006 settlement between the California Teachers Association and former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to direct $3 billion to the state's lowest performing schools. The state still owes approximately $1.6 billion for that program.

As a settlement it is unclear that the Legislature could suspend without court approval and indeed a spokeswoman for the CTA said the proposal, if acted on, would likely be challenged.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, who as a legislator authored the original QEIA legislation, said taking money from needy students to help close the overall school budget didn't make sense.

"To single out our state's most needy students and schools to suffer the loss of nearly $500 million in funding critically needed to provide an effective, high-quality education shows a refusal to realize the toll these cuts would take," said Torlakson in a statement. more