Illustration by Joe Lai.
Illustration by Joe Lai.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has proposed a constitutional amendment to cement spending on higher education at 10 percent of the state’s budget. Following this proposal, Schwarzenegger released his 2010-2011 budget, which increases funding for higher education and restores some one-time cuts to the University of California.

“We can no longer afford to cut higher education. … I will protect education funding in this budget,” Schwarzenegger said on Jan. 6 in his final State of the State address. “Never again do we spend a greater percentage of our money on prisons than on higher education.”

The governor’s $82.9 billion budget proposal for the 2010-2011 fiscal year will eliminate the State of California’s $19.9 billion revenue shortfall with spending reductions and a reprioritization of existing spending.

If passed by a two-thirds vote in both houses of the state legislature, higher education will become one of the few budget items to receive an increase in funding compared to the previous year.

Overall, Schwarzenegger’s proposed constitutional ammendment would increase allocations to higher education by $224.5 million from last year. The University of California would receive $79 million of the $224.5 million increase.

In addition, the University of California would receive $51.3 million for a 2.5-percent projected enrollment growth, and a restoration of $370 million in previous one-time cuts from the last two years.

At the end of last year, the University of California Office of the President (UCOP) requested that $913 million be restored from previous cuts.

In response to Schwarzenegger’s proposed constitutional amendment, as well as his plan to increase education spending for the 2010-11 fiscal year, UC President Mark Yudof released a statement saying, “These restorations, in addition to the governor’s proposed constitutional amendment earlier this week, are clear evidence that the governor understands the vital role public higher education plays in California.”

The governor’s proposed amendment would cap the yearly contributions to California’s prison system from the state’s general fund at a maximum of 7 percent, while allocating a minimum of 10 percent to higher education.

Last year, California prisons received 11 percent of the state’s general fund while 7.5 percent went to higher education.

In order to make cuts to state prison funding manageable for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDC), which runs state prisons, the governor’s plan would allow them to contract with private corporations.

“If California’s prisons were privately run, it would save us billions of dollars a year,” Schwarzenegger said. “That’s billions of dollars that could go back into higher education, where it belongs and where it better serves our future.”

This aspect of the governor’s proposal has caused contention.

“Privatizing prisons is not a good way to go in preserving state morals and values,” said Victor Sanchez, a UC Santa Cruz student and president of the UC Student Association (UCSA), a UC-wide organization that advocates for UC students in state and federal government.

“I don’t think it’s the right answer,” Sanchez said. “[The state] will be looking at a lot of problems. Civil and human rights … may be interrupted, if not infringed upon.”

The trade of funding between prisons and universities must first be approved by a two-thirds vote of both the California Senate and the California Assembly in order to be placed on the ballot. A majority of California voters would then need to pass the initiative in the November 2010 election for the amendment to be added to the California Constitution. The two spending restrictions would take effect in the 2014-2015 fiscal year.

While reactions to details of Schwarzenegger’s proposal have been mixed, the governor’s new emphasis on higher education has drawn praise from many.

“I appreciate that the governor recognizes the irony that California spends more on prisons than on higher education,” said Assemblyman Bill Monning, who represents the city of Santa Cruz and its surrounding areas, in a statement released after the State of the State address. “However, his idea to pass a constitutional amendment is not necessary to achieve reprioritization of the budget.”

Sanchez said, “In principle, [UCSA] supports the increase in funds for higher education, but we have extreme reservations about where these funds are coming from.”