Crossposted on Prop Zero

Goodness knows that more Californians need access to higher education. And that scholarship money for middle-class families — who don’t have all the money for higher tuition or the full benefit of breaks for those on the lower ends of the income scale — would be a good public policy.

But state legislation to provide such scholarships looks much more like a political weapon than a real push for a policy. And as a political weapon, it’s being used in a way that’s likely to mislead the public.

The middle-class scholarship bill is a statewide talking point for Democratic legislative candidates in this spring’s primary elections, which conclude June 5. If you’ve received a piece of political mail from a Democrat in California, you’ve probably seen references to it. And this week, just in time for the election, Democrats held a vote on the legislation–thus putting most Republicans in a position to vote against a popular-sounding measure.

What Democrats didn’t do was put a companion measure to fund the scholarships up for a vote. That’s because that would effectively raise taxes, by reversing a change in the corporate tax that helps companies save money. Forcing Democrats to vote for a tax hike isn’t good politics. And it’s almost certainly a waste of time because California has a two-thirds vote requirement for approving tax increases. So Democrats would be taking a politically problematic vote that they couldn’t win.

Of course, if they were serious about the policy, they might take that vote anyway. But this is politics — good short-run politics at least.

In the long run, however, this sort of thing makes it harder for Democrats, or for anyone, to dig the state out of its hole. University access isn’t a problem in California because hard-hearted Republicans are blocking scholarships for middle-class families.

It’s a problem because of the constant cuts to higher education (and the resulting tuition and fee increases) that are produced by the state’s broken budget system.

You can’t fix the universities without fixing the budget system first.

And the middle-class scholarships legislation is a distraction from that larger fix.