Teachers union is the elephant in the California budget room 

When Capitol politicians gather to discuss the deficit-ridden California budget, there’s an elephant in the room. The pachyderm is the California Teachers Association.

With K-12 education consuming 40 percent of the budget, with a constitutional guarantee of school finance that virtually no one understands and with the CTA’s oft-demonstrated willingness to spend millions of dollars to protect its piece of the pie, the union looms large.

Every recent governor has wrestled with the CTA over money and education policy, and the union has rarely lost.

Even if it suffers a short-term setback, the 1988 ballot measure it sponsored to lock school spending into the constitution eventually makes it a winner, either in the political arena or the courts.

The CTA’s dominant presence was demonstrated two years ago when former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and legislators negotiated a package of spending cuts, tax increases and budget-related ballot measures.

Schwarzenegger, et al., were worried that the CTA would oppose a measure to impose a spending limit on the state. They fashioned the package to short-circuit the tax increases if the measure failed, thus, they hoped, forcing the CTA to remain neutral.

The strategy backfired when anti-tax groups seized on the poison pill to persuade voters to reject the entire package of measures. That’s why the income, sales and car taxes are now expiring and why Schwarzenegger’s successor, Jerry Brown, is proposing that they be extended for an additional five years.

His strategy for persuading voters to extend the taxes, an average of roughly $1,000 per family per year, once again includes a CTA-connected ploy.

Brown has largely exempted schools from initial spending cuts, hitting safety net health services and higher education instead. If he can get the tax extensions on the ballot, however, he’ll contend that rejection would mean huge cuts in school spending.

That would, he hopes, appeal to voters, who consistently say education is their top priority for spending, and also encourage the CTA to spend millions to pass the tax boost measures.

But what, one wonders, would really happen if voters reject the tax extensions?

Would Brown and the Legislature really slash billions of dollars in spending on schools and prisons, another part of the budget that largely escaped the first round of cuts?

Should the taxes fail, the elephant would go on a rampage.

Dan Walters’ Sacramento Bee columns on state politics are syndicated by the Scripps Howard News Service.

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