As education groups battle over which California tax initiative would give the biggest boost to schools, advocates for low-income residents fear safety-net programs remain vulnerable no matter what happens on the ballot in November.
Proponents for three competing tax measures are focusing heavily on schools because voters prioritize education funding most. But it remains an open question how other programs will fare.
Gov. Jerry Brown's proposal raises several billion dollars for the state's general fund that he says would help protect schools from severe reductions. But he has proposed deep cuts in welfare-to-work and child care in the first year even if his taxes pass.
Two rival plans largely bypass the state to send money directly to schools and counties. They leave unanswered how the state would close an estimated $9.2 billion deficit through June 2013.
"If tax revenues aren't available to help balance the budget it puts pressure on higher education, on health and social service programs, on parks," said Jean Ross, executive director of the California Budget Project, which advocates for low-income residents. "It puts pressure on everything that isn't constitutionally protected."
Democratic lawmakers and powerful unions have signed on to Brown's plan because it could benefit the entire state budget while maintaining control over spending in the Capitol. The Service Employees International Union State Council, which represents In-Home Supportive Services workers and government employees, has quietly endorsed the governor's proposal.
The California Teachers Association is backing the governor's plan as well. The group prefers that education dollars flow through the state, where it is a principal player in budget talks. But President Dean E. Vogel also said last month that it was important to build a broader coalition by helping programs beyond education.
Michael Herald, a lobbyist with the Western Center on Law and Poverty, said he prefers taxing only the wealthy, as the "millionaires tax" does. But he fears that plan doesn't do enough for state programs beyond education.
"All of the state-funded programs will be subject to ongoing threats to their budget, and even their ongoing existence, if we don't fix the structural budget deficit," Herald said, mentioning Medi-Cal, In-Home Supportive Services and welfare-to-work in particular.
Herald said his group has not taken a position "other than we'd like more money." But he is concerned that the plans rivaling Brown's distribute funds outside of state coffers.
The "millionaires tax" is spearheaded by the California Federation of Teachers and Courage Campaign, with recent support from the California Nurses Association. It directs 60 percent of funds to K-12 schools and higher education and nearly 40 percent to counties for public safety, road maintenance, health care, children and disabled residents.
CFT Secretary Treasurer Jeff Freitas said the plan makes up for past state budget cuts. Counties, for instance, could use their new funds to help low-income residents who have suffered from state reductions in social services.
But that would be an imperfect solution, suggests Ross, because some counties may avoid spending on welfare-to-work or In-Home Supportive Services.
Freitas said the governor's plan isn't particularly friendly to health and welfare in the first year. Brown has proposed slashing welfare to work and child care for the poor by $1.4 billion.
"All I see are massive cuts to CalWORKs and, I believe, cuts to IHSS and similar programs," Freitas said of Brown's budget. "I don't know where any of that gets repaired. He's cutting those programs even with his initiative passing."
A third initiative, dubbed "Our Children, Our Future," is backed by wealthy civil rights attorney Molly Munger. The plan would raise at least $10 billion annually by hiking taxes on middle-class and wealthy earners along a sliding scale.
Munger's first version raised concerns for social service advocates because it directed all funds to schools, preschools and child care. She filed a new version in December that contributes $3 billion annually to the state's general fund budget for four years "in recognition of the state's very serious economic crisis," said spokeswoman Hilary McLean.
Munger's campaign says Brown's proposal, which relies on volatile income sources, may not raise as much as the governor thinks. If so, the campaign believes its measure's $3 billion contribution to the general fund would provide more budget relief than Brown's plan.
Finally, there is an obvious way in which state leaders could turn some local education dollars into funds for other state programs: As schools see a windfall, the state could reduce its own contributions to education.
To do this, state leaders would have to get a two-thirds vote in the Legislature to suspend the state's minimum guarantee for school funding not an easy task following an election in which voters opted to raise taxes for education. Or they could reinterpret the constitution and use new maneuvers that cut spending, as the governor has said he would do if his tax plan fails.
McLean said her campaign hopes the state would not go down that road.
"I think the education community would be very distressed to see that outcome, and voters and supporters would find that distasteful," McLean said.