Reports that Jerry Brown is receptive to a bill that would allow school districts to avoid state-mandated cuts in bus services means the issue may fade in the short term. But it appears that unions and California Democrats who want to punish Republican lawmakers for opposing tax hikes may have found a lever to do so going forward. Banning school districts from paying for bus service can amount to a nightmarish, life-changing ordeal for parents in rural, spread-out, mostly Republican districts, much more so than for families in urban Democratic areas. And it’s a punishment that they can get away with, unlike more broadly punitive ideas touted by Treasurer Bill Lockyer and Senate President Darrell Steinberg in April 2011.
Here’s an L.A. Times’ article that month describing their hardball plan:
Lockyer suggested that if the Legislature has to bring an ax down on the budget, it should start the cuts in GOP districts. “The people who want less government ought to be at the front of that line to get less government,” he said in an interview with the Bay Area News Group. When asked about Lockyer’s suggestion a few days later, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) said he’d be open to it as long as it applied only to “convenience services” for adults, not safety net programs.
“You don’t want to pay for government, well then, you get less of it,” is how Steinberg put it in a Sac Bee story.
The idea disappeared before long. Perhaps it was because of a scolding L.A. Times’ editorial. Or perhaps it was partly because of a piece I wrote showing the scheme is …
… problematic to the extreme, even with Steinberg’s argument that it would be fair if the cuts didn’t affect “kids or the vulnerable.” … What about the equal protection clause of the Constitution? The 14th Amendment prohibits a state from denying any individual within its borders the equal protection of its laws. University of San Diego law professor and constitutional scholar Lawrence A. Alexander said the Constitution blocks a state from awarding benefits “based on political affiliation.” That appears to be Steinberg’s intent.
I later did more reporting, talking to a respected, high-profile lawyer who had served in the Legislature and as a Superior Court judge, among other folks. Every last one said structuring state services to reward some areas over others was an equal protection no-no. Lockyer’s spokesman Tom Dresslar told me that of course the AG believed the punitive approach he suggested was legal, but I kept returning back to a source who sneered at Lockyer and called him a “night school laywer, not a legal scholar.”
So how do you constitutionally punish Republican lawmakers who won’t go along with tax hikes or even allowing voters to consider raising taxes on themselves, the big gripe in April 2011?
The school bus flap shows how. You pass a state law that says as a matter of broad K-12 priorities, transportation is way down the list and is not a cost that can be borne by districts.
And if this absolutely kills the constitutents of GOP lawmakers who represent rural areas like Kevin Jeffries or Dan Logue, well, that’s a coincidence.
Except, of course, it wouldn’t be. It would be a way to express Lockyer’s sentiment — “The people who want less government ought to be at the front of that line to get less government” — and Steinberg’s: “You don’t want to pay for government, well then, you get less of it.”
Now if you think my political angle on cuts in school bus service is wacky and out of left field, that’s not how it appears to school officials in rural east San Diego County. This is from a U-T San Diego editorial written by a colleague of mine earlier this week about the state’s targeting of school bus services:
To Kevin Ogden, superintendent of Julian Union School District and a director of the Small School Districts’ Association, this is nothing less than partisan politics, affecting children of poverty in poorer inland areas. California’s urbanized coastal strip is Democrat blue, its inland strip Republican red. If Republican legislators want to balance the budget with cuts, the strategy goes, let their districts feel the pain.
The Alpine area is represented by Sen. Joel Anderson and Assemblyman Brian Jones, both anti-tax purists. Because of this fact, will parents and students in the area face chaos in trying to deal with an end to busing? Don’t discount the possibility.
Nothing is more important to the unions pulling the strings in the Legislature than higher taxes. If there is a legal way to waterboard the districts of Republicans who won’t bow to their wishes, they won’t hesitate to use it.