By Michael Meranze
While it is too soon to tell the true implications of the Governor’s State of the State and his proposed 2010-2011 budget certain strategies seem clear and they should give pause to any enthusiasm that might have greeted Arnold’s general statements about shifting priorities from punishment to education. I think that we need to try to seize the rhetorical opening that the State of the State provided while challenging the ways that Schwarzenegger frames the problem and proposes to solve it.
There were positive elements to this week’s policy announcements. When Arnold declared that “The priorities have become out of whack over the years. … 30 years ago 10 percent of the general fund went to higher education and three percent went to prisons. Today, almost 11 percent goes to prisons and only 7.5 percent goes to higher education. Spending 45 percent more on prisons than universities is no way to proceed into the future. What does it say about our state? What does it say about any state that focuses more on prison uniforms than on caps and gowns? It simply is not healthy” he opened up a space to challenge one of the most devastating policy trends of the last several decades—not just in California but throughout the nation. The shift from social investment to mass incarceration has been a fundamental moment in the growth of inequality since the 1980s. This recognition of the need to alter public priorities, along with his promise to protect CSU and UC from further cuts is something to be taken up and pressed.
But as the Governor’s elaboration of his vision (both in a supplementary statement and in his budget) makes clear, we need to resist his strategy to reverse this trend. Although this is beyond the direct question of higher education, the Governor’s proposal depends on reforming corrections not by reforming sentencing but by contracting out inmate care to corporate prisons. In doing so, the Governor aims to sidestep the demands placed on the prison system by federal courts and strike another blow against labor costs while avoiding a real re-consideration of the policy of mass incarceration itself. It is the costs that he is concerned about. In effect, the Governor would be engaging in a subsidization (to use Aranye Fradenburg’s phrase) of corporate prisons in order to slow down the privatization of higher education (as is marked by the rise in student fees).
These problems become clearer in the Governor’s actual budget proposals. The Governor’s proposal depends on the arrival of large numbers of federal funds. For that reason alone it is probably not long for this world. But more striking is the distribution of actual cuts. While the State of the State placed great emphasis on the relationship of punishment to education, in the proposed budget the really deep cuts will be coming out of transportation, the protection of natural resources, and health and human services. If the rhetoric is that of education vs. punishment (and it is true that there are some proposed cuts to corrections) the real tradeoffs seem to be between education and services for the poor, the sick, and the elderly. (BudgetSummary, 13) While the Governor is presuming that he can gain additional funds from the Federal Government he is refusing to consider expanding the state’s revenues.
It is the logic of the zero-sum game that the Governor is playing. He has steadfastly refused to consider new sources of revenues or any fundamental revision of our regressive tax system (note that while he proposes increased off-shore drilling but no mention of an oil-extraction tax). Once again he is urging legislators to take up the Parsky Commission suggestions which not only will make the tax system more regressive but probably will lower revenues in the long-run. Under the welcome rhetoric of a shift in the state’s priorities from punishment to education, he is proposing to further strip those in greatest need without discomforting those with the greatest resources. Susan Kennedy’s fascinating comment that “Those protests on the U.C. campuses were the tipping point,” indicated not only that the fall’s protests made a real difference but how much remains to be done. Personally, I don’t want to fund higher education at the expense of the poor and the sick. We need to make sure that we make our commitments to higher education and our commitments to a wider shift in the priorities of the state clear. The Governor’s State of the State opened up a new space to make that argument—we should do all we can to prevent his budget from closing it off.
6 hours ago