Dan Walters

Legislators try to fix, not repeal, very bad limit on school reserves

Gov. Jerry Brown and John Pérez, then the speaker of the state Assembly, jointly appeared before an Assembly committee in 2014 to promote Brown’s plan to create a rainy day fund, which appeared on that year’s ballot as Proposition 2.
Gov. Jerry Brown and John Pérez, then the speaker of the state Assembly, jointly appeared before an Assembly committee in 2014 to promote Brown’s plan to create a rainy day fund, which appeared on that year’s ballot as Proposition 2. jvillegas@sacbee.com

There’s a saying among Capitol insiders about legislation: You shouldn’t amend a bad bill.

The impeccable logic behind the adage is that if a measure’s premise is faulty, amendments can’t fix it, but could mask its shortcomings.

The wisdom of that advice has been proven too many times to count, with legislators often being forced year after year to revisit and try to fix something that shouldn’t have been enacted in the first place.

The ill-starred energy “deregulation” measure in 1996 and an irresponsible public pension sweetener in 1999 are two classic examples. They were hastily and secretly written and passed with no more than cursory examination of potential downsides.

Senate Bill 858 was – and is – another bad bill, imposing politically motivated and arbitrary limits on school district budget reserves. And three years after its hasty passage in 2014, legislators are still trying to fix it.

However, true to the axiom, while fiddling may make it more acceptable to some interests, as well as more complicated, it’s still very bad policy.

SB 858 was a prototypical “mushroom bill” that sprouted in darkness as a so-called “trailer bill” to the 2014-15 budget, containing dozens of provisions relating to public education.

No. 27 of those provisions clamped limits on school district reserves if voters passed a pending ballot measure, sponsored by Gov. Jerry Brown, to create a state budget “rainy day fund” that would cushion the effects of an economic downturn, and if the state shifted any money, even $1, into another reserve fund for education.

On its face, therefore, it was irrational. It would potentially limit the ability of school districts to protect themselves from the same adverse impacts that the ballot measure, Proposition 2, sought to mitigate at the state level.

It soon became evident why Brown wanted the legislation. He was concerned that the powerful California Teachers Association would oppose Proposition 2 because it could potentially limit funds available for salary increases. SB 858’s school reserve language placated the CTA by potentially making more money available for salaries.

Proposition 2 passed and the school reserve limit language became law. Authorities said its limits were unlikely to be triggered, and they haven’t been yet. Moreover, with accounting modifications, school districts can pretty much avoid the limits even if they are triggered.

However, it still grates on local school officials that limits were arbitrarily imposed, and they’ve been trying ever since to repeal them.

They should be repealed. They are not only fundamentally bad policy, but blatantly violate Brown’s oft-voiced fondness for what he calls “subsidiarity” – trusting local officials to run their affairs without interference from Sacramento.

However, instead of repealing SB 858, or at least provision No. 27, the Legislature is trying to fix it.

Assembly Bill 235, carried by Assemblyman Patrick O’Donnell, D-Long Beach, would revise the conditions under which the reserve limits would be triggered, soften the limits themselves and exempt more than 400 school districts altogether.

Those exempted districts, of course, support the bill, which whipped through the Assembly Education Committee, chaired by O’Donnell, this month.

O’Donnell said it “fixes the concerns.” Chances are, it will make it through the legislative process and be signed by Brown.

However, it just complicates a piece of political policy that shouldn’t have been enacted in the first place. It tries to fix a bad bill.

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