The University of California vs. Hollywood

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

We are at the point in the UC vs. Jerry Brown budget movie when both sides have drawn their arms and made their threats. But no one has fired.

The UC has drawn on Brown, with the regents approving tuition hikes that go away only with more support from the legislature. Brown responded in kind in last week’s budget, offering a smaller boost that goes away with the UC goes through with the tuition hikes.

The next move is the UC’s but what will it be? The system’s leaders have had a bad habit of playing nice and trying to be reasonable – and nice and reasonable is a bad strategy in the state’s dog-eat-dog budget politics. If you want more money, you better take it from somewhere else.

So the real question for UC is: what money do you go after? The easy way out is to suggest that the Brown revenue projections are too low – and to go after funds that come in above that. And that might work this year—but it’s not a winning strategy.

A better, though riskier, strategy would be to target the many tax breaks that Sacramento doles out. And there’s no better target than the $1.6 billion over five years that the legislature and Brown handed out last year.

Independent analyses of the breaks show they don’t pay for themselves. So it shouldn’t be hard to draw the contrast. The argument is as follows: “Gov Brown and the legislature had more than $300 million a year in additional money in a tax break for Hollywood that its own legislative analyst said won’t work. And yet the governor wants to give the University of California – which has a well demonstrated and powerful effect on the economy of our state – only a third as much money, and he is making it conditional on getting his way in the budget fight.”
And then you stick in the shiv: “If the budget is really tight, why not close the Hollywood tax loophole and give that money to the UC, where it would have a real impact? Isn’t giving access to the UC to struggling families – and building a brighter future to the state –more important than cutting the taxes of rich people in Hollywood? Why does Sacramento have its priorities so out of whack?”

The risks are twofold—the legislature and the governor supported those breaks. And the UC, precisely because of more than a generation of disinvestment in higher education by the state, needs private donations more than before, and some of those come from Hollywood.

But such an attack is worth the risk. It would attract attention the UC needs to educate the public and move public opinion in its favor. It would put the governor and legislature back on the defensive. It might provide a point of agreement with anti-poverty forces who are seeking to restore program funding (and also need a way to point out the state’s misplaced priorities). And it would be a righteous attack on the merits.

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