State Sen. Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto) will keep his chairmanship of the Senate Environmental Quality Committee but will lose his seat on the Budget Subcommittee on Educational Finance under an exercise of party discipline for taking an independent stance on massive school budget cuts.
Sen. Simitian's position is that state officials should avoid suspending Prop. 98, the 1988 voter-approved minimum-funding guarantee for education, by using $1.5 billion in funds in unspent accounts to reduce this year's general fund expenditures on education -- the basis for next year's Prop. 98 guarantee.
But when he proposed an amendment to allow flexibility in how funds were spent at a Senate committee meeting, Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata stripped Simitian of his committee chairmanship. Sen. Perata apparently reconsidered following discussions with Sen. Simitian within the last week. The change had not yet been ratified by the Senate Rules Committee, although the vacancy was listed briefly on a daily journal for the Senate.
"It was my choice to speak my mind," Sen. Simitian said late Friday about his position at the meeting. "Choices have consequences. I understand that. I said what I said because I'm trying to avoid a Proposition 98 suspension. It's just that simple," he said.
Sen. Perata's office has said that he never comments on committee assignments. But a longstanding tradition in both parties in Sacramento is to use committee assignments, office allocations and even staff budgets of legislators to enforce party discipline on legislative matters.
School districts statewide face more than $4 billion in budget cuts as part of a budget deficit that has grown to $16 billion, adjusted upward last week from an earlier estimate of $14.5 billion. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has proposed suspending Proposition 98 guarantees in order to achieve the $4 billion-plus cuts in education.
But Sen. Simitian has warned school officials and parents that suspending Proposition 98 twice in four years would create a dangerous precedent and leave the guarantee vulnerable to future suspension, even though doing so takes two-thirds approval in the Senate.
By using unspent or reserve funds from various accounts to cut the general fund expenditure (and next year's level of guaranteed funding), Sen. Simitian said he believes suspending Proposition 98 could be avoided.
But many school-district officials and education leaders are concerned that reducing the guarantee in that way would lower future funding levels.
-- Jay Thorwaldson is editor of the Palo Alto Weekly