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University students have mixed opinions on AB 656

POSTED January 8, 2010 11:00 p.m.
When a state assemblyman proposes a bill that could mean more than $1.5 billion a year to higher education, students at cash-strapped universities sit up and listen.
About 30 California State University, Stanislaus students from majors as diverse as Biology, Nursing, Criminal Justice, and Jazz Trombone gathered on a misty Friday evening for an open forum to discuss Assembly Bill 656. Student group Socialist Organizer, which has helped to organize some of the recent CSU Stanislaus protests, sponsored the meeting.
Melina Juarez, a political science and anthropology student affiliated with Socialist Organizer, presented information about the bill, which would impose a 12.5 percent producer paid tax on all oil and gas, at the point it is extracted from the state. Oil and gas companies would be prohibited from passing the cost of the tax on to consumers. California, the third-largest oil producer in the country, is the only state in the nation without an oil severance tax.
Money raised through the tax would be used solely to fund higher education classroom instruction. As currently written, 50 percent of revenues would go to the CSU system, 25 percent would go to the University of California, and 25 percent would go to community colleges.
Funding would be used to establish the California Higher Education Endowment Corporation, which would annually allocate the moneys in the California Higher Education Fund, which would also be created by the bill. A 15-member oversight board would govern the CHEEC.
“The oversight board is the most important part of this bill, because those are the ones that are really controlling the money,” Juarez said.
The makeup of that board, as the bill is currently written, was of some concern to students in attendance Friday.
While the bill calls for representation from the CSU system, the UC system, the CC system, the California Senate, Assembly, and K-12 education, only one student would sit on the board. Students suggested that one student from each of the three school systems sit on the oversight board.
Additionally, as the seats are appointed, CSU Stanislaus students had some concern that their views would not be reflected on the oversight board.
The bill has other problems too, according to students, including mandatory audits that would take place every six years. Rather than punishing administration if funds were misspent, funds would be entirely pulled from an offending university.
The oversight board’s ability to invest the oil severance tax revenues also worried students, still expressing caution over investments in the wake of the recent real estate bubble burst.
According to Juarez, the bill is a good thing, but is “still not good enough.”
The bill, which will come before the Assembly Committee on Revenue and Taxations on Monday, is still a long way from being passed, but CSU Stanislaus students are becoming involved with AB 656 even at this early stage. About 10 students affiliated with the groups Students for Quality Education and Socialist Organizer will travel to Sacramento on Monday to lobby for the changes they believe the bill needs.
According to CSU Stanislaus students, the fact that this bill even exists is testimony to the effect statewide protests have had at the legislative level. More action is needed, they said, to ensure the bill they want is passed.
“This bill came about because of all the pressure that has been coming from the students for change,” Juarez said. “It does prove that mass mobilization can get you somewhere.”
To contact Alex Cantatore, e-mail acantatore@turlockjournal.com or call 634-9141 ext. 2005.

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