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Sacramento comes up with another way to make matters worse

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POSTED April 12, 2010 1:06 a.m.
There is little doubt that State Sen. Dean Florez, D-Shafter, means well.

He is the politician that authored a bill now making its way through the California Legislature to establish student fee caps starting in 2010-11 and cap increases at 5 percent in future years at the University of California, California State University, and California Community Colleges.

The proposed law would also assure students that their fees would not rise during their learning career. The annual increases would only apply to new students.

In short, Florez wants to flat-line what is essentially tuition for all students so students and their families can have stability in terms of costs. The idea sounds noble enough in concept but there is one little problem - reality.

You can’t very well artificially cap the cost of a product - in this case higher education that has a financial value in future earning power and isn’t mandated for people to partake in unless they make a decision to pursue a particular career path - when you don’t cap expenses.

Of course, Florez said the problem is lack of state funding. Hello, that is the problem for everything the state does today. There is a $20 billion plus budget deficit casting its shadow over the State Capitol in case Florez hasn’t noticed. There won’t be any huge increases in state support coming any time soon unless you want to intentionally steer the weakened economy into the rocks. Higher education is a priority for California’s future but there are some things that are of higher priority - public safety, public education, making sure struggling people don’t starve to death just to name  a few.

Florez said the bill is a start. The problem if it passes is all it will do is add to the chaos that Sacramento keep building on instead of opting for painful remedies to cleanse the state’s convoluted finance and spending system imbedded within a massive bureaucracy where redundancy is the norm and not the exception.

Florez’ measure might spark some enthusiasm - and raise the hackles on more than a few folks as well - if he tied a cost control element to it. Why not put a cap on salaries that anyone in the various systems can make so expenses don’t go up by more than 5 percent a year?  If you’re going to limit income you have to limit expenses. And with everything else the state does, more than 80 percent of the cost of higher education has everything to do with salaries and benefits of everyone from the groundskeeper to the tenured professor.

Many lawmakers in Sacramento whine about how Proposition 13 tied their hands and cut off revenue. The ones that complain about that, though, rarely say a peep about Proposition 98 that set minimum funding levels for public education. The state, though with the full complicity of the state senate of which Florez is a part of has managed to employ enough smoke and mirrors that they’ve managed to violate the spirit of the law put in place by Proposition 98 and are razor thin to breaking the letter if they haven’t already.

The reasons rates are increasing at the colleges have everything to do with the bad economy and lack of leadership in Sacramento.

Adding another feel good restriction that doesn’t address the core disease - a state rampant with cancerous spending in a world where everything becomes a priority for limited tax dollars - will only make matters worse. It is like trying to treat someone suffering a heart attack with a placebo sugar pill. You may wish with all your might for it to work but in all likelihood you are just going to make matters worse by delaying real treatment.

Should Florez’ bill pass without caps on spending, what he will effectively do is force the colleges to cannibalize opportunities for tens of thousands of Californians by thinning the enrollment even further to cut costs imposed by a student fee cap.

Imagine the irony if the very people that Florez said should not be treated like “walking ATM machines” end up not having any access at all to higher education at state institutions due to enrollment being choked by an artificial cap on student tuition.

Concerns like that don’t matter in Sacramento where it is a matter of posturing for votes and dodging the real nasty decisions.

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