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The Riggs Report: Education’s budget bonus

Schools sweep up on extra state revenues

Gov. Jerry Brown will preside over the release of a revised state budget that is swimming in extra revenues. Good news? Yes, but primarily, only if you work in public education.

Under terms of Proposition 98, approved by voters a quarter century ago, almost all of that windfall will end up in the coffers of K-12 public schools and community colleges. Part of that has to do with built-in formulas that require schools to be reimbursed for recent recession-era cuts, in addition to guaranteed increases.

It’s a big windfall. Tax collections are up roughly $3 billion over projections, and are on track to go much higher by June, when the state is supposed to adopt a new spending plan for the coming fiscal year. Schools will get the lion’s share, and there will be no shortage of ideas about how to spend this money. In fact, one of the primary issues is helping public education transition to new Common Core standards in English and math.

Being atop a very short list of budget winners is exactly where school advocates want to be. But since winners by definition create losers, it’s also a central point of conflict in the coming budget debate.

After years of cuts, there is pent up demand at the Capitol to restore or expand spending on social services, health care and transportation. Just last week, Assembly Democrats expressed their desire to spend more on an earned-income tax credit for the poor, raise spending on higher education, and funnel more money to road repairs. Since schools are first in line, advocates for these programs will find themselves scrambling after budget scraps.

It’s also worth paying attention to another education spending fight that sources say the governor will address in his revised budget. Last fall, UC President Janet Napolitano won approval of the Board of Regents to raise tuition by up to 5 percent a year. That plan would go forward, she said, unless Brown agreed to a 7.5 percent increase in state funding for the University of California’s 10 campuses.

Last January, Brown countered by proposing a 4 percent increase, as long as the university agreed to skip a tuition increase. Will Brown, resentful at being jammed, hold firm on that increase? That of course would set off a new round of stories about the face-off between Brown and Napolitano, and create more financial uncertainty for UC students and their families.

All of this conflict about education spending is a product of having money to fight over; a relatively rare situation in the past 15 years at the Capitol. Don’t forget that when Brown returned to the governorship in 2011, he faced a projected shortfall of $25 billion.

Better times just means a different kind of budget fight, focusing on what to spend instead of what to cut.