Dan Walters

Opinion: Stealthy bill on schools boomerangs

Senate Bill 858 was one of dozens of “trailer bills” that were drafted in secret, given only cursory public notice and then hastily passed by the Legislature in June because they were supposedly “necessary to enact … provisions of the Budget Act of 2014.”

This particular measure affected public education and contained 31 specific provisions, not all of which were, in fact, necessary for the budget. Capitol politicians long ago figured out that burying something in a trailer bill is one way to get it passed without scrutiny that might prove fatal.

Provision No. 27 imposed tight limits on local school district financial reserves when the state transfers money – even as little as $1 – into a new state school reserve fund under Proposition 2, which was to go before voters five months later.

School officials learned of it only hours before SB 858 and other trailers were jammed through both legislative houses on June 15, largely by party-line votes – Democrats voting yes and Republicans no.

It soon became apparent that Gov. Jerry Brown had insisted on having the reserve limit in the bill, which was a little surprising.

It not only defied common sense by potentially forcing local districts to spend down financial reserves against their will, but clearly violated Brown’s own oft-voiced principles of “subsidiarity” – leaving decisions in local hands – and building reserves as prudent hedges.

It was clearly a sop to the powerful California Teachers Association and other unions which might have otherwise opposed Proposition 2, which was to be the focal point of Brown’s re-election campaign.

Forcing districts to spend down reserves could potentially free money for salary negotiations. Thus, placing the reserve limit in SB 858 would, it appeared, persuade union leaders to not oppose Proposition 2’s passage and give them cover vis-à-vis their own members – even though it’s unlikely that conditions for invoking the limit will be met in the foreseeable future, and school officials could probably sidestep it with creative budget-writing.

As the Legislature reconvened this week, the California School Boards Association demanded repeal of the limit, citing a study saying it could force districts to spend as much as $17 billion, including emergency reserves, against their better judgment.

“This is bad law and needs to be repealed,” the group’s president, Josephine Lucey, declared.

It may have been an acceptable tradeoff to Brown, ever the pragmatist willing to set aside even his principles when political exigencies intrude. But it’s still bad public policy and he has dropped hints that with Proposition 2 now passed, he might entertain repealing or modifying it.

However, a Brown flip-flop, if it happens, would make the whole episode look even more cynically manipulative and would also present a political dilemma for the unions.

Call The Bee’s Dan Walters, (916) 321-1195. Back columns, sacbee.com/dan-walters. Follow him on Twitter @WaltersBee.