With public opinion polls showing education far and away the top issue among California voters, Governor Gray Davis began his new administration by calling a special session of the Legislature to enact his school overhaul package. "My first priority in fact, my first, second and third priority is education," the 56-year-old Democrat said in his State of the State speech. "And my goal is to set higher expectations for everyone involved in education: students, teachers and administrators. This, I believe, is our duty to the future."
For Davis, the speech and special session were a quick follow up to the themes he hammered in the fall election campaign, when he crushed Republican Attorney General Dan Lungren by 1.6 million votes.
In all, the new governor has proposed spending $444 million on his school package, with much of the money redirected from direct aid to schools. For the past decade, the level of state spending on kindergarten-through-community college education has been dictated by a voter-approved constitutional amendment, Proposition 98.
The main elements of Davis' proposals, if approved by the Democratically controlled Legislature, would:
The package faced its first significant vote Wednesday.
If the package is enacted in the special session, the new laws would take effect for the fall, 1999, school term. Passing so-called urgency legislation in a regular session would require a two-thirds majority of the Legislature, meaning Davis would need Republican votes.
Republicans in the Assembly responded with 22 special sessions bills of their own, including measures to grant vouchers for low-income children attending poorly performing schools, and testing of teachers every five years for competency in subjects they teach. California voters rejected a voucher initiative in 1993, but another may be in the works for 2000.
Davis in January also unveiled a $76.22 billion proposed budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1. Like his Republican predecessor, former Governor Pete Wilson, Davis is counting on money from Washington to balance his spending plan.
California's economy is slowing because of the Asian financial crisis, and tax revenues have dropped. It is estimated the state will gain fewer than 300,000 jobs in the coming year, compared with more than 400,000 last year.
Last August, Wilson signed a $71 billion budget that projected a $1.2 billion surplus. When Davis took office in January, the surplus had evaporated and he was faced with a $2.3 billion shortfall.
To balance his plan and rebuild the reserve to $415 million, Davis is counting on cuts, spending delays and gambits, like receiving $562 million from the national tobacco settlement, $210 million for changing a Medicaid sharing ratio, and $100 million from Washington for the cost of housing illegal aliens in California prisons.
Davis provided an 8.4 percent increase for K-12 education, and 6.9 percent for community colleges. Meantime, Medi-Cal, the state's Medicaid program, was reduced 0.9 percent, while CalWORKS, the state's welfare program, was cut 10.8 percent, mostly because of declining caseload.
Davis, who received generous political support from the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, the prison guard's labor union, included a 1.7 percent increase for the Youth and Corrections Agency. Nearly 171,000 adult convicts will be housed in California prisons by next June, a 3.9 percent increase.