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College students and activists are rallying today in Sacramento to protest state budget cuts in higher education. They will be joined at one Capitol rally by Democratic legislative leaders who negotiated budgets that included those cuts in recent years.

It's one example of the murky budget politics surrounding higher education.

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg and Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez say they would have preferred not to have cut higher education. But as state tax revenues dropped and Republicans rejected tax hikes, they looked for anything and everything to slash. University funding is an easy target because it lacks the constitutional, federal and court protections that other areas have, while they have a revenue stream in the form of tuition.

Without those education cuts, Democrats would have had to cut deeper in social services and health care, budget areas that Democrats rallied for and protected just last week.

Since 2007-08, the state has slashed its support of the University of California by 21 percent and California State University by 26 percent, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office. To make up for those dollars, universities have shifted costs to middle-class students through tuition hikes on top of program cuts.

Protesters and Democratic leaders agree on the general solution: higher taxes. But there is disagreement over which taxes.

Some student leaders are calling for the tax hike on millionaires backed by the California Federation of Teachers. That plan would devote about $300 million to $500 million annually each to the CSU and UC systems. The group "ReFund California," which includes campus leaders, says the measure also would "make Wall Street the 1% pay to solve the economic crisis they created."

But Steinberg has called on CFT to drop its measure in favor of Gov. Jerry Brown's proposal to raise taxes on wealthy earners (starting at $250,000 for single filers) and sales. Meanwhile, Pérez has called for a change in corporate tax calculations that could raise $1 billion annually from large, out-of-state companies to reduce tuition for UC and CSU students.

The problem for Steinberg and Pérez, as for Brown, is that they need to balance the overall state budget. If the CFT plan passes instead of Brown's, there's no guarantee that Democratic leaders wouldn't just reduce general fund budget spending for UC and CSU by the amount the CFT plan raises, resulting in no net increase for those programs.


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