UCSA Asks the California Supreme Court to Stop Budget Cuts

The University of California Student Association, along with individual students and several grassroots organizations including Californians for Justice and the Equal Justice Society, submitted a petition for a writ of mandate to the California Supreme Court on Jan. 21 in an attempt to block implementation of proposed mid-year budget cuts by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s administration last December.
The petition is aimed at challenging the legality of the governor’s November executive order lowering the vehicle license fee, and the subsequent proposal to cut $148 million in education, health and other services to compensate for budget shortfalls arising from the decrease in fees.
‘The writ of mandate claims that there were actions that the governor took that were inappropriate,’ said Warrington Parker, lead counsel for Heller Ehrman White & McAuliffe, the law firm representing the petitioners. ‘The governor improperly lowered the vehicle license fee. That is inappropriate under the California constitution because the fee can only be lowered when there is sufficient money in the general fund. If it is true that there is not enough money in the budget to pay for the lowering of the fees, then one cannot certainly decide to cut other budgets.’
Although budget proposals by the governor usually require approval by the state legislature before implementation, fear of Gov. Schwarzenegger declaring a fiscal emergency, which would allow him to make cuts without legislative approval, motivated the various groups to file the petition as soon as possible.
‘[The cuts] could happen at any point,’ said Eva Paterson, executive director of the Equal Justice Society. ‘We didn’t want the case to languish in the lower courts, so we went directly to the [California] Supreme Court.’
‘The 2003 Budget Act states that if there is an emergency, then the governor can approve cuts in appropriations,’ Parker explained. However, he also points out, ‘The same provision also says that if the budget crisis or deficiency is caused by the governor, then the governor cannot evoke his authority to cut the budget. What we’re also claiming [in this petition] is that the governor caused the deficiency that he is now trying to satisfy with the budget cuts.’
Out of the $148 million in cuts, $29.9 million were designated for the UC, which included an unallocated reduction of $15.7 million, a reduction of $2 million for the Institute for Labor and Employment, and a reduction of $12.2 million for K-12 outreach programs for this fiscal year. The proposed reduction in funding would grow to $47.2 million in the 2004-05 fiscal year. The reduction of funding for outreach programs would eliminate K-12 outreach programs altogether. Fear of the elimination of these outreach programs united the disparate groups to come together as one to stop the proposed budget cuts.
‘The whole idea behind the UC is access,’ said Christina Gagnier, ASUCI executive vice president and a member on the board of directors for the UC Student Association. ‘We’re trying to get students to be able to have higher education so on these principles, that’s why we got involved in this case.’
‘[The Equal Justice Society is] very concerned with making sure that there’s equal educational opportunities to all students in California, particularly kids of color, poor kids and immigrant kids,’ Patterson said. ‘So when the governor breaks the law and does it by making massive cuts in educational programs, particularly in outreach programs, we think that as a legal-oriented organization, we need to step up and say this is not right.’
Abdi Soltani, executive director of Californians for Justice, agreed. ‘We think that the UC and CSU outreach programs are critical for all young people to have equal access to higher education in California. The governor cannot unilaterally move billions of dollars around based on his preferences. That’s the difference between a governor and a king.’
The petition is now in front of the California Supreme Court and everyone will wait to hear its decision.
The Court may decide to hear the case and ask for arguments from both sides before making a decision, or the Court may decide that the petition does not warrant a review and dismiss it entirely.
The petitioners are confident that the California Supreme Court will take their petition seriously.
‘I think our case is on solid legal ground, so it is difficult to predict how the Supreme Court will decide the issue, but I think that the case we made is a very good one,’ Parker said. ‘If we do win, then the vehicle license fee would increase and also more importantly, the December 18 cuts would not go into effect.’
The Schwarzenegger administration is not ready to concede.
‘If we didn’t think [the governor] had legal standing, we would have never made those transfers [of money],’ said Rick Chivaro, chief counsel for the office of the California State Controller Steve Westley, one of the offices of the Schwarzenegger administration named in the petition. ‘I don’t think the California Supreme Court will take [the case]. I think the court will kick it back down to the Superior Court. Our position is that the governor had the legal authority to do what he did. They obviously have a different view, so we’ll just see. It’s a proper matter for the Court to resolve.’
A decision from the California Supreme Court is expected sometime this week.
‘I don’t know what’s going to happen,’ Patterson said. ‘You just can’t tell what’s going to happen in California politics.’