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Apodaca: Optimism and the state budget

January 19, 2013|By Patrice Apodaca

Gov. Jerry Brown has gone to great pains lately to inject a large dose of an unfamiliar characteristic — optimism — into discussions about state finances.

His surprise announcement that California is now operating in the black, and that schools would benefit from the firmer financial footing, is certainly welcome news for hard-pressed districts throughout the state, including our own Newport-Mesa Unified.

Brown's upbeat assessment is based on an unexpected increase in tax receipts last year in conjunction with spending cuts made over the past two years. What's more, new revenue is beginning to flow in from Proposition 30, the governor's tax increase measure that won voter approval in November.

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So why isn't the long-put-upon education community dancing in the streets?

Possibly because that would be like asking a mugging victim to do a jig when he's lying in a hospital bed with his head bandaged. The worst might be over, but a full recovery is still a long way off, and some injuries could last a lifetime.

School officials know full well that our public education system is far from anything approximating good health; the funding picture remains fluid, complex and uncertain, and Brown's proposed budget, which would increase K-12 school spending by $2.7 billion, is just that — a proposal that is only the starting point for negotiations.

The budget plan also calls for adding about $250 million each to the University of California and Cal State systems. As a result, universities like UC Irvine wouldn't be forced to raise tuitions this fall, although some fees likely would still increase.

But as Paul Reed, NMUSD's deputy superintendent and chief business official, pointed out, "All we have thus far is what the governor has proposed." The final budget will be the result of hot debate and unhappy compromise; a lot can happen between now and July, when the next fiscal year begins.

So far there isn't even agreement on the numbers that will form the basis of negotiations. The Legislature's top financial analyst, while concurring that the fiscal picture has brightened, projects a small budget deficit will remain this year.

And there will certainly be opposition to increased spending without offsetting cuts elsewhere, and disagreement about how money should be directed to schools. Critics will argue that Brown's plan is premature and risky, and could leave the state vulnerable to another economic downturn. Even many Brown supporters urge caution.

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