As the Governor and legislators wrestle with the size of greater than anticipated state revenues and what to do with additional funds, there is one priority where Democrats, Republicans, conservatives, liberals and moderates should be able to come together—public higher education.

The state legislative analyst’s office has projected revenues that are $3.2 billion higher than those included by Gov. Jerry Brown in his May Revision budget proposal.  We’re seeing the outlines of a debate about what to do with the surplus, and where our priorities should be, as we emerge from the most severe fiscal crisis to hit the state in nearly a century.

So, where do we go from here?  Certainly, a rainy day fund makes sense, as does using some of the new money to make one-time investments in long neglected infrastructure.  It is also essential that we put badly needed dollars back into our higher education system.  After all, California’s economic vitality and quality of life rest on the shoulders of higher education.

We recommend the Governor and Legislature allocate $250 million each to the Community College, California State and University of California systems.  On this, there can be bipartisan consensus.  Republicans and Democrats agree our colleges and universities provide opportunity for those willing to work hard and spur industry and job growth.

Governor Brown’s conditional proposals for additional higher education funding constitute a step in the right direction, and a partial acknowledgment that two decades of disinvestment, including massive cuts through the economic crisis, have been devastating to students and families, and wreaked havoc on our campuses.   But, it doesn’t go far enough.

The Governor’s plan calls for four and five percent increases to UC and CSU over four years, as long as tuitions are frozen and graduation rates improve.  But these amounts are not enough to allow UC and CSU to take the necessary steps, including hiring and restoration of classes.   In his first 2011-12 budget, Gov. Brown cut the UC and CSU budgets by $750 million each.  His proposed budget for next year restores only about half that amount.

And it is important to keep in mind just how deeply public higher education budgets have been decimated over many years.  The Governor’s budget for next year of $2.8 billion for UC, for example, is $400 million below the $3.2 billion figure for UC in 2000, when the UC educated fewer students than it does today.  California spends more on corrections today than it does on public higher education.

A report last year by the Public Policy Institute of California on the defunding higher education in California found that higher tuitions, cuts to enrollments and other cuts to programs have meant high school graduates are less likely to attend any four-year college, and that many of our state’s best and brightest students are choosing to pursue university out of state, raising the specter of a brain drain.

Recent UC admissions data reinforced this concern.  UC recently reported the acceptance rate of California seniors reached a record low (60.6 percent), even as a record number of Californians (99,132) sought freshmen admission.  There are indications many California students are choosing to attend public universities in Arizona and Oregon over California.

To be sure, the crisis has forced some positive directions.

It limited spending on administration and salaries, forced efficiencies and the elimination of non-essential programs and caused the campuses to accelerate their focus on online education, which will bring new efficiencies and may help relieve overcrowding.  All of this represents progress.  It is not progress, however, to load more and more costs onto students and their families.  A $750 million booster shot will inject needed revenue into the educational system, and can help alleviate over-crowding, improve graduation rates and keep our best students in California.

The bottom line: public higher education is a proven, blue chip investment.    Nothing is more important to our economy and quality of life.  Let’s use a good chunk of newly available revenue to get California’s higher education system back in high gear—jumpstarting our economy and once again moving the Golden State in the right direction.