Governor Gray Davis - Digital Library
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June 20, 2006

North Hollywood Students Get a Fiscal Schooling

Former Gov. Davis and former state Senate leader Jim Brulte are among speakers at a high school tutorial on government spending.

By Michelle Keller
Times Staff Writer

Sitting in a classroom at North Hollywood High School on Monday, senior Lacey Padgett thought taxing the rich to balance California's budget sounded like a fine idea.

But then former Republican state Senate leader Jim Brulte pointed out that celebrities including Tiger Woods and Serena and Venus Williams have relocated to Florida, where state income taxes are nonexistent. Padgett said the comment gave her pause.

"He almost made me change my mind," said the smiling 18-year-old, as she swept back her blond hair.

The learning moment came during a tutorial to North Hollywood High's Advanced Placement government class presented by Next Ten, a Palo Alto-based nonprofit, whose mission is to illuminate Californians on the complexities of the state budgeting process.

During the exercise, the students voted on increasing, decreasing or maintaining state-spending levels in key areas.

In addition to Brulte and Next Ten founder Noel Perry, a venture capitalist, former Democratic Gov. Gray Davis was on hand to share experiences.

The students also were guided in their deliberations by Next Ten's online interactive aid, dubbed the California Budget Challenge, which offered immediate feedback on the consequences of their policy and spending choices.

With the quiz-style tool flashing on a screen, students chowed down on sandwiches and chips as they quizzed the former lawmakers and Next Ten leaders on the intricacies of the process. Where exactly do education dollars go? Why are prisons so expensive?

As many seniors in the class prepare to enter California's state-funded colleges and universities, rising tuition costs caught their attention.

"People in the middle class like me don't get any [financial] aid, but we get swamped with loans," said Amy Kaladzhyan, student body president.

Kaladzhyan, 18, who is attending UC Santa Barbara next year, voted in class to slash the state's 8% annual tuition increase to only 4%.

The students also debated K through 12 education funding, which takes up a significant part of the state's budget.

Davis told students that the more the state invests in education, the more money the state's citizens will earn in the future.

"The better educated the youth is, the lower the crime rate is," said student Nicole Schatz, 18. "It's planning for the future."

The students eventually voted to raise education spending within the budget.

Davis cautioned students that politics play a big role in budgeting. Davis was recalled in 2003, in part because of anger over choices he made to balance budgets.

Davis said one of the hardest things politicians must do is cut back on popular spending programs when multibillion-dollar deficits return in the seesaw cycle of government finances.

"Don't take something back from people once you've given it to them," Davis cautioned students.

In an interview after the student session, he expanded on the point. "I'm living proof of that," Davis said.

Compromise was one of the big lessons of the tutorial. California is among a handful of states that require a two-thirds vote on the budget — most require only half — making for even more bitter wrangling in Sacramento.

"The California Budget Challenge is important because it helps us understand the trade-offs," Perry told the class. "There's only so much money" in the budget.

Brulte said he hoped educating students would help them to pressure politicians to make better choices.

"The more information California citizens have about the budget process," Brulte said, "the easier it is to hold California government leaders accountable."

Davis, after the class adjourned, said he was impressed with the students' fiscal responsibility.

"The challenge is to demonstrate enough discipline to put money away for a rainy day," Davis said.

It's like an all-you-can-eat buffet, he said. "You can't eat it all. It requires some choices and discipline." Throughout the session, Davis said, "the students exhibited both."