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Time for state to pay school debt

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POSTED January 20, 2014 12:12 a.m.

As Republicans, we believe that your tax dollars should be spent responsibly on the priorities that matter most such as education. But in order to properly fund those priorities, we must have a budget that lives within its means and avoids the mistakes of the past. It is refreshing to see that Governor Jerry Brown recognizes these principles in his education budget proposal.

In a document as massive and complicated as the budget, one thing we like is that the Governor proposes to pay back all the money that the state owes to schools. He wants to eliminate what in Sacramento-speak is called “budgetary deferrals,” which in practice is the money the state has borrowed from schools to make ends meet.

This budget practice first began in the 2001-02 school year as a small and temporary solution to shore up the state’s finances, but it was then extended and increased in subsequent years. During the height of the Great Recession, the state postponed paying almost 20 percent of the dollars owed to schools. This meant that local school districts received a significant portion of their funds the year after they were supposed to receive them. Districts had to scramble to secure loans to cover the temporary shortfall, which meant that precious education dollars were being wasted on paying interest instead of going to the classroom where they belong.

Governor Brown now wants to end this practice by proposing to repay $6.4 billion that the states still owes to our schools. This would eliminate all remaining budget deferrals and ensure that schools receive all of their resources on time.

For years, we have urged the Governor and our legislative colleagues to end the education funding gimmicks. Last year, we introduced Assembly Constitutional Amendment 2 to bring the issue to light and stop the use of education deferrals. Our goal was always to make sure that our schools would be paid back. We are pleased that the Governor now agrees with us in his budget.

Given his education proposal, we have decided in the spirit of good-faith bipartisanship to hold off on having our bill debated in the Legislature. We hope that as lawmakers and the Governor negotiate a final budget agreement in June, it will include the elimination of all school debt.

The challenge now is to convince the Democrats who control the Legislature to incorporate the Governor’s proposal into the final budget. We are hopeful that they will agree since they claim education is a major priority for them. But we are not naïve. Many competing interests want more funding for their programs while others want to create new ones that will inevitably put more strain on the state budget. Circumstances can change and the Governor may alter his proposal in the coming weeks.

But if the Governor is able to carry through, our state will go a long way toward avoiding some of the budget mistakes of the past. Given the State’s projected budget surplus, the Legislature should seize this opportunity to pay back the debt it owes to our schools.

Assemblyman Brian Nestande (R-Palm Desert) is a member of the Assembly’s Budget Committee and Assemblymember Kristin Olsen (R-Modesto) is Vice Chair of the Assembly’s Education Committee.

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