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Assemblyman rallies support for higher education oil tax

POSTED February 24, 2010 12:05 a.m.
Oil companies may not be excited about California State Assembly Majority Leader Alberto Torrico’s (D-Fremont) plan to tax oil and gas producers to pay for education, but students at California State University, Stanislaus are gaga over the prospects of an additional $2 billion in education spending each year.
Torrico’s visit to CSU Stanislaus on Tuesday drew more than 100 students to hear about the Fair Share for Fair Tuition Act, also known as Assembly Bill 656, and how the bill may save the embattled educational system.
The bill 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 because, as Torrico says, “I don’t trust oil companies.”
California, the third-largest oil producer in the country, is the only state in the nation without an oil severance tax. As CSU Stanislaus Professor of Politics and Public Administration Dave Colnic said, states “famously more conservative than the State of California,” as such as Texas and Alaska, charge extraction taxes up to 25 percent.
Money raised through the tax would be used solely to supplement higher education classroom instruction, and not to replace existing funding. 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.
Reception to the bill has been overwhelmingly positive across all 16 campuses Torrico has spoken at, he said after visiting with CSU Stanislaus classes on Tuesday.
“We’ve struck a chord with students, because I think everyone is appalled to hear we spend more on prisons than education,” Torrico said. “… I’ve got to tell you, it’s not even close. It’s about a $2 billion difference.”
According to Torrico, despite the spending 60 percent of inmates are functionally illiterate and 50 percent receive no rehab of any kind. He thinks that if the state were to invest more heavily in education, perhaps fewer Californians may end up in prison.
Torrico recalls a time, growing up as a child of a middle-class family, when going to college was a realistic dream because of California’s educational master plan. As a high school graduate, Torrico and all of his siblings went on to attend affordable state colleges, but in today’s economic state Torrico isn’t sure if he would have made it.
“When I had went to college, if my college had sent a letter to my parents telling them my fees were increasing 30 percent they might have told me to come home,” Torrico said.
To make matters worse, since Torrico matriculated the average time to graduation has increased from four years to six – in part due to fewer classes being offered. That change has led to bigger loans students are left to repay.
All this comes at a time when oil companies are posting record profits, Torrico notes, including Exxon Mobile’s $45.2 billion in pure profit in 2008. He sees AB656 as a bit of corporate accountability.
But politics as usual won’t work to pass the Fair Share for Fair Tuition Act due to oil company lobbying, so Torrico set out to gather 100,000 signatures of public support. People in Sacramento said there was no way he’d succeed, Torrico said, but in three months he’s already collected 50,000 signatures – including those of more than 500 CSU Stanislaus students.
When he hits 100,000, probably in summer, Torrico says he will take the signatures and support to the governor, and every legislator in Sacramento. He says he’ll remind them what students already know, that every dollar spent on education results in $4.40 in tax dollars.
“We know we aren’t an expenditure, we are an investment,” said Diana Heredia, CSU Stanislaus Associated Students Inc. President.
State Senator Jeff Denham has introduced his own solution to the education crisis, his Student Protection Act, which would limit annual fee increases for UC and CSU students to 10 percent of tuition. The act would also require 180 days notification before a fee increase could take place, so students would have time to prepare to pay tuition hikes.
However, Torrico says Denham’s solution doesn’t address the root of the problem. Limiting fees can be legislated, he admits, but it is a practical impossibility without additional income, Torrico says.
“It’s not a zero-sum game,” Torrico said. “We don’t have the money.”
And simply maintaining the status quo wouldn’t work for CSU campuses, he notes. Places like CSU Stanislaus needs additional funding to continue to successfully educate students.
“Our college is facing unprecedented cuts. Really damaging cuts,” said John Sarraillé, Professor of Computer Science and President of the Stanislaus California Faculty Association Chapter.
CSU Stanislaus did not renew the contracts of 16 percent of full-time faculty in fall — 2.7 times as much as the average CSU campus — and student enrollment is set to be reduced by 40,000 system wide. If additional funding is not located, entire programs and majors will likely be discontinued at CSU Stanislaus.
“I don’t want to see that happen. I don’t want to see us join a race to the bottom,” Sarraillé said.
To contact Alex Cantatore, e-mail acantatore@turlockjournal.com or call 634-9141 ext. 2005.

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