California's already faltering economy will be further damaged by severe cuts to to higher education, State Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, warned warned about 120 persons Saturday at a "town hall" meeting in Palo Alto' City Council chambers.
"We are offering less to fewer students and charging them more," Simitian said of cuts and tuition increases at University of California campuses statewide.
Simitian, a UC Berkeley law school graduate, said it pained him that budget cuts would deprive students of opportunities he had.
The middle class is getting hit, he warned. Even with scholarships, many middle-class students will slip through the cracks, Simitian said.
The state's future prosperity hangs in the balance, he warned. No economy in the world has grown after slashing funds to higher education, and California will slip in global competition, Simitian said.
Simitian also discussed state parks, saying that even if they remain open, they will be accessible for fewer hours and days under the plan unveiled Friday by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who presented a plan that would cut $14.2 million and avoid closure of up to 100 parks this year.
The savings will come from the maintenance budget and from hours and services, he said.
The state has long deferred park maintenance. Deferred maintenance has ballooned to about $1.2 billion, he said.
He said one possible solution is a 2010 ballot measure that would increase vehicle-license fees by $15 a year to fund parks. The measure would raise roughly $400 million a year and requires a simple majority to pass.
Simitian said if it is approved parks would receive reliable long-term funding, and California motorists would get free admission to all state parks.
One person asked about reining in excessive retirement and medical benefits for state employees. Simitian said significant efforts would be made in 2010 to eliminate abuse of the pension system.
Calculating pensions based on a state employee's last or single highest year of income is akin to inviting workers to "game the system" by cramming more income into that last year, whether by logging additional hours or other means, Simitian said. Using a system of averages over several years would reduce such opportunities.
In opening comments, Simitian said he has cut back sharply on proposing new bills to focus on two statewide issues: rebuilding the California Delta levee system and requiring electrical utilities to produce a third of their power from renewable resources by 2020.
"This is California's Katrina waiting to happen," Simitian said of the aging levees. He said there's a two-thirds chance the system will collapse within 50 years, creating a catastrophe and destroying a vital source of clean water.
Simitian said the state's chronic budget crisis could be fixed by eliminating the two-thirds majority vote of the Legislature required to pass the state budget.
The requirement creates a situation where there is "virtually no accountability" of legislators. Every year a handful of legislators from the minority party hold the majority party hostage and essentially dictate budget terms, he said.
Simitian favors a simple-majority approval instead. He also highlighted two reform groups: California Forward and Repair California.
Simitian also spoke about his a ban on "text messaging," explaining why it wasn't included in his initial cell-phone law that required use of hands-free sets (which took effect July 2008). Texting was not common then, he said.
He estimated about 360 fewer fatalities occurred in the first six months after the hands-free law took effect.
Simitian reminded the audience of his annual "There Oughta be a Law" contest, which invites individuals to propose bills. The deadline is Oct. 31 and people can sign up online at www.senatorsimitian.com/oughta/.
Over the past eight years, 14 bills proposed by constituents have become laws, Simitian said.