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Dueling Tax Initiatives Get Serious

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    The battle over new taxes for public education has ratcheted up yet another step.

    Led by wealthy civil rights attorney Molly Munger, Proposition 38 advocates are now airing ads touting their proposal as the best way to solve California's education funding shortfall. Implicit in the message is a criticism of the way Gov. Jerry Brown has managed the issue -- particularly in terms of his intention to slice three weeks off the public school year if his proposal, Proposition 30, fails to pass.

    This is a war that should have never happened.

    Propositions 30 and 38 both seek to provide desperately needed funds for California's schools, where per-student spending now ranks 47th among the 50 states, according to a Education Week report.

    The two propositions' means to acquire the new revenues are slightly different.

    Brown hopes to capture $8 billion annually through higher income taxes on wealthy Californians, along with a quarter-cent uptick in the sales taxes, with the increases expiring in seven years. Munger has proposed higher income taxes for almost all Californians, with $10 billion raised over 12 years.

    There are a few other minor differences, but at their cores, these two propositions have a lot in common. Yet the fact they are both on the ballot jeopardizes each measure.

    Voters have a hard enough time deciphering ballot propositions. Put two similar ballot proposals on the same ballot and voters take on a dazed look similar to a deer staring at headlights. The fear is that the confusion will translate into "no" votes for both measures on Nov. 6.

    In fact, the latest Field polls show that both of the propositions are in trouble.

    Brown's initiative currently has a small margin of support, with 51 percent saying they'll vote "yes" and 36 percent saying they'll vote "no" (PDF).

    Although only a simple majority is required for passage, most experts believe that tax-based initiatives need support closer to 60 percent going into the election to accommodate tentative "yes" voters who change their minds about additional taxes.

    Munger's proposition is in even more trouble, according to the Field results from Sept. 20. Currently, Proposition 38 is failing, with 41 percent supporting the initiative and 44 percent opposed.

    Meanwhile, campaign fundraising has been fast and furious.

    To date, Prop 30 proponents have accumulated more than $38 million, well beyond Brown's goal of $30 million. The Yes on Proposition 38 campaign has raised a bit more than $28 million, almost all of which has come via Munger's hefty checkbook, which shows no sign of running out of money.

    Lost in the political food fight among traditional allies is the glee of the anti-tax groups, who have spent little energy fighting both initiatives. And why should they, when the camps for the two competing propositions are wreaking havoc and causing doubts among the voters.  

    There you have it: two groups basically on the same side of the same issue. But because of fierce competition and voter confusion, both sides may well lose, leaving the state's beleaguered and underfunded public education system sinking to new lows.

    Only in California.

    Larry Gerston teaches political science at San Jose State University and is the political analyst for NBC Bay Area.

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