Our governor wants a constitutional amendment to require that 10 percent of state revenues go to higher education. This sounds good, but it really is bad policy in several ways:

  • One of our current problems is that there are so many spending mandates in California that our policy makers have very limited freedom to respond to the crisis. Further tying their hands makes no sense.
  • A spending minimum is realistically also a maximum, particularly in a fiscal crisis. It could easily be good economic policy to not cut higher education in a fiscal crisis, or perhaps make less-than-proportional cuts. If a minimum exists, other constituencies would point out that the minimum had been met, and they would demand that they deserve whatever is left, without a discussion of the merits of the proposed spending.
  • The number set is independent of the need, independent of the number of students or the costs of providing the education.
  • It arbitrarily restricts future citizens’ choices when we don’t know their preferences or circumstances.

It looks to me as if the proposal was one-off to get the lame-duck governor a cheap applause line in his last State of the State, but it could have real impacts. I worry that California’s government, a government that increasingly exists to serve its employees instead of its citizens, will use this to protect another group of employees, at the citizens’ expense of course.