Vetoes of higher education reform bills cause turmoil

Governor Schwarzenegger’s vetoes of three higher education bills on Oct. 11 has sparked outrage among many in the education sector.

Introduced by Senator Leland Yee (D- San Francisco), SB 86, 218 and 219 aimed to reform the UC/CSU system, mainly by altering their fiscal systems to be more transparent to the public.

SB 86 and SB 218 had bipartisan support from the State Assembly and Senate. SB 86 would have eliminated executive pay raises during bad budget years, or when the current year’s budget is less than or equal to the preceding year’s at UC and CSU institutions.

Schwarzenegger said in a veto message that he felt the bill would limit the flexibility for the UCs and CSUs to attract and retain high level employees.

In July, the UC Board of Regents approved salary increases for executives at the same time it was voting on furloughs, fee hikes and other cutbacks.

UC spokesperson Leslie Sepuka said the UCs felt that the bill was unnecessary and deemed it micromanagement.

SB 218 would have required foundations and other auxiliary non-profits connected with the state’s public universities and colleges to make their handling of money and other operations more visible to the public.

Twenty percent of the CSU $6.7 billion budget, or $1.34 billion, is held in auxiliaries and foundations, according to the CSU Chancellor’s Office. This portion is currently out of public view.

The California Faculty Association was not happy with 218′s veto.

“It would appear that [the governor's] public commitment to transparency and accountability is only lip-service,” said CFA President Lillian Taiz in a press release. “When given the opportunity to provide the public with real, meaningful transparency in its public universities – he failed miserably.”

The UC system agreed with the governor’s decision.

“Subjecting university foundations to oversight that far exceeds that applied to other nonprofits will send the wrong message to our donors and volunteers who unselfishly give their time and philanthropy to the university,” said Leslie Sepuka, UC spokesperson. “SB 218 is attempting to address an issue that does not exist for our foundations.”

The third vetoed bill, SB 219, would have provided UC employees who report waste, fraud and abuse with the same legal protections as other state employees.

“The governor has failed to keep his promise of bringing greater sunshine to government agencies,” said Yee in a press release. “While he talks a lot about government waste, he vetoes the only bills to actually provide public oversight and accountability. His vetoes are certain to allow further scandal at these public institutions and will only result in fewer philanthropic dollars at a time when they are needed more than ever.”

Sepuka disagreed, and said UC is committed to protecting the rights of “whistleblowers” and will continue to believe that a fair and open administrative review process is the best means to resolve whistleblower complaints.

“The use of the courts should be reserved for exceptional cases,” Sepuka said. “Although the university offered to accept whistleblower complaint provisions that would provide whistleblowers access to the courts under specified circumstances – similar to provisions that currently apply to CSU – the author rejected our proposed compromise.”

Communications Director Fred Glass of the California Federation of Teachers was not surprised by the governor’s actions.

“The governor’s priorities are all wrong,” Glass said. “He’s more interested in raising fees and tuition than he is in financial fairness. He’s blocking access to public education. This is ironic because he benefited from community colleges in California many years ago.”

Yee’s Chief of Staff Adam Keigwin said the senator is working on a similar legislative package to reintroduce next year. Yee hopes a change of language will garner the governor’s signature, possibly compounding the bills until there is a new governor.

In November, the Board of Regents is voting on whether they should raise student fees by 30 percent next year.

In terms of solutions to the budget problem, Glass said the California Federation of Teachers is sponsoring AB 655. This bill would create an oil severance tax of 9.9 percent that could raise over $1 billion for public education in California. California is the only one of the 21 oil producing states that doesn’t have this tax.

ANGELA SWARTZ can be reached city@theaggie.org.

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