It's not often the youngest voters can weigh in on something that will have an immediate and concrete impact on their lives. But that's the case with a tax measure on California's Nov. 6 ballot known as Proposition 30.
If it passes, California State University plans to lower tuition in January and send $250 refund checks to students for the higher rate they paid this term. Tuition at the University of California would stay flat for the next semester.
If it fails, CSU plans to admit 20,000 fewer new students for the fall. Cal State tuition is set to go up 5 percent in January, the same month that UC officials have said they would raise tuition by about 20 percent, to around $15,800 a year.
There's little evidence yet, however, that college students are rising up en masse to support it something that Gov. Jerry Brown will begin working today to change.
Brown, who crafted Proposition 30 to cope with state budget troubles, will be at UCLA today to make the case for his tax increase. Campaign officials said it is the first of several campuses the governor will visit in the next three weeks to try to cement the student vote a demographic that doesn't usually turn out in big numbers.
"We need to build awareness," said campaign manager Ace Smith. "That's our purpose, and we think we'll be able to build tremendous awareness as the election gets closer."
Interviews with students at UC Davis and Sacramento State last week revealed that many are uninformed or not convinced that the measure relates to them. Others understand the impact but still plan to vote no.
"Right now I'm iffy on (Proposition 30) because I'm not exactly sure where the money goes," said Albert Young, 21, who was eating lunch outside the UC Davis student union last week following former President Bill Clinton's speech on campus.
Clinton told students to vote for Proposition 30, but Young wasn't convinced.
"You can state that it goes to education, but which part does it go to? After today, after hearing more about it, I believe I'm going to look into it. But as of now, I don't have a decision yet."
Proposition 30 involves two temporary tax increases to fill deficits in the state budget. It would raise sales taxes statewide by a quarter-percent for four years and raise income taxes on those making over $250,000 for seven years.
Most of the $6 billion that would be raised from the measure each year would go toward K-12 schools and community colleges. Brown has said that if Proposition 30 fails, the state would cut funding this year to UC and CSU by $250 million each.
Opponents of Proposition 30 say the state isn't required to cut university funding if the measure fails and that politicians could opt to make the cuts somewhere else. But the state's budget builders have already planned for contingencies that include the cuts to higher education. Changing plans midyear is unlikely.
The universities' governing boards have endorsed Proposition 30, and its employee unions are in strong support. Using public resources to advocate in favor of it is illegal, however, creating some tension on campuses around the state.
After some CSU professors made presentations about Proposition 30 to their classes at the urging of their union, Cal State officials sent a letter to faculty last month reminding them that "class time and classroom spaces should not be used for inappropriate political advocacy."
"This includes making presentations about Proposition 30 unless a discussion of Proposition 30 is relevant to the regular course material," said the letter from Charles Gossett, interim provost at Sacramento State.
The issue re-emerged last week at California State University, Fresno, where an exam question in a political science class asked students to apply the theory of Jean-Jacques Rousseau to "argue for virtues of Proposition 30."
The campus chapter of College Republicans objected to the test question, saying students were being coerced into supporting the measure to get a good grade. The professor, Marn Cha, said the question was appropriate because the class is about state politics. Cha said he was asking students to apply a theory learned in class to a situation from current events.
"I wanted to see them arguing that Prop. 30, which will fund education in California, which is a collective good, is a sacrifice on the part of citizens," Cha said. "Nonetheless they will end up giving future generations something that the individual cannot do."
At Sacramento State, a College Republican student leader said he's frustrated to see Yes on Proposition 30 signs up on some faculty office doors. Aubrey Riley, 25, said his group is planning its own publicity campaign to counter the messages.
"They're threatening that we're either going to raise our sales taxes or pay higher tuition," Riley said. "So I would rather have us who get the benefit pay the higher tuition than raise the sales tax on everyone so I can go to school."
Other students hanging out near the library last week described some professors making the case against Proposition 30. Criminal justice major Jasmine Lopez, 20, said one of her instructors argued the money would do more to pay teachers than improve schools.
But Lopez said she won't check out his claims. She's not registered to vote and doesn't plan on signing up for this year's election.
"I don't put enough effort in to be informed enough to make a knowledgeable vote that will count for something," she said.
Her lack of interest in the democratic process puts Lopez in the same boat as about half of Californians ages 18 to 24. In 2010, 49.4 percent of Californians that age who were eligible were registered to vote. That compares with 82.1 percent of eligible Californians age 25 and up, according to a recent report by the California Civic Engagement Project at UC Davis.
But younger Californians who are likely to vote are also likely to favor Proposition 30, according to the most recent Field Poll, which found 60 percent support among likely voters age 18 to 39. That compares with 51 percent support among likely voters of all ages.
Student leaders know they need more of their peers to vote if Proposition 30 is to pass. They've been conducting voter registration drives on campus. The California State Student Association has registered 17,000 new voters, said Pedro Ramirez, a vice president of the group, many of them through California's new online voter registration system.
Raquel Morales, president of the UC Student Association, said her group will shift its focus in the last two weeks before the election from registering students to vote to educating them about how Proposition 30 would affect UC.
The group plans to put its message on pens and inside fortune cookies, said Morales, a UC San Diego student who grew up in Sacramento.
"Our typical student doesn't even know that Prop. 30 exists, so that is something that we are trying to change," she said. "We recognize as student leaders that this is the first wall we are hitting, and the first wall we are trying to break down."