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Butting Up Against Brown, Munger Vows To Stay In The Fight

Laura Walsh |
April 10, 2012 | 7:54 p.m. PDT

Staff Reporter

Munger's opponent, Gov. Jerry Brown. Funding initiatives from the nemeses will likely face-off on the ballot in November. (Neon Tommy)
Munger's opponent, Gov. Jerry Brown. Funding initiatives from the nemeses will likely face-off on the ballot in November. (Neon Tommy)
Billions of dollars in funding for California’s public education system depend on two competing tax initiatives set for the November ballot. “Our Children Our Future,” a proposal sponsored by wealthy philanthropist Molly Munger, and Jerry Brown’s “California Tax Increase Initiative” draw different ranks of supporters for their plans of pocket attack. Both have their quirks and issues, but with two proposals begging for voter attention, some analysts worry citizens will simply fall-back on another option. The alternative to choosing between the tax proposals is, of course, not voting at all.

Last week, The Huffington Post called Munger a “chief political foil” for Brown.  A Los Angeles Times blog argued that the proposal represents “good policy, but for another time.” But what does that really mean when a citizen-sponsored tax initiative is not only pitted against a political insider’s for support, but also branded an independent crusade riddled with shortcomings?

 It means the bill’s creator is at least a little out-of-touch. Munger has been hit with this critique from all angles, and the characterization has a lot more to do with politics than policy.

In fact, it even has little to do with Munger herself. The Harvard Law graduate has an extensive background in legal and business affairs, is president of her own legal action group and serves on numerous boards of education. Her initiative would boost the progressive state income tax by 1 percent, sending $10 billion straight into K-12 education by proportionally taxing almost everybody.

The combination—a smart, adaptable plan funded and drafted by a businesswoman and philanthropist willing to invest in a school system she sees as failing—isn't all that unsettling on its own. What has voters reeling is her campaign’s response to Gov. Brown.

The man behind the megaphone, the money and the masses has a heavy endorsement from labor unions. Brown's plan represents a compromise—a merger with the teacher-backed “Millionaires Tax,” and manages to include the public safety sector in managing its profits. The governor targets the state's sales tax and the wealthiest income earners. His brainchild earned a weighty 64 percent approval rating in a recent USC Dornsife/L.A. Times poll.  

In a phone interview Monday, Munger didn't seem deterred by her opponent's popularity. In response to the suggestion that continuing to push her initiative might come at the detriment of any public education-based tax initiative, Munger could only cite internal polling. “That’s just not what the data shows,” she said.

While this may very well be true, it is the same “consistent polling” that has been showing Munger’s team the initiative “has a very good chance of passing.” Yet the campaign has not produced any verifiable evidence to that end, and the bulk of the reasoning for sticking out the expensive, high-frequency and now controversial measure seems to come from opportunistic assumptions.

Reasoned Munger on Monday:

“I think [voters] intuit correctly that if you continue to shortchange the schools, you will never stop the syndrome of children being left uneducated, therefore the society needing more public safety, more health, more interventions, more support. There’s a study, I think it’s a Rand study, that a better education is a much less expensive population.”

Munger makes an undeniably fair point, but voters are not always known to prioritize such concepts over their own pockets and jobs in times of economic strife. To argue this angle, Munger again cited an internal poll.

While cause for skepticism, Munger’s broader argument reflects at least her own personal decision to remain on the ballot:

“California schools are now funded 47th out of 50 states. Most voters may not be aware of the exact low ranking we have, but they have been bombarded with information about the cuts and how devastating they are at the local level. In school after school, and district after district, there are examples of very painful things happening to schools and to children as a result of the cuts.”

Whether or not an internal poll can show what she claims is “a 20-year high in terms of voter willingness to tax themselves to support the public schools,” remains to be seen. If voters stay skeptical of Munger’s chances on the ballot in November, she hasn't yet assumed the same cynicism. 

Sounding optimistic, Munger may have been paraphrasing her own thoughts when she spoke of a general sentiment that “we can’t keep failing to invest in our children.” As the campaigns roll out, Munger’s definition of “we” may serve to characterize a leader’s vision of a people unified by prioritizing public education.

Or it could simply serve as ammunition to typecast the lawyer as a deliriously hopeful idealist, who too often misconstrues the meaning of “I.”

Reach Staff Reporter Laura Walsh here.



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