In his State of the State address, Schwarzenegger proposed a constitutional amendment that would guarantee at least 10 percent of the California budget for the University of California and California State University systems, gradually scaling back prison funding to reach that number. Both university systems have raised student fees more than 30 percent in the past year while limiting access because of deep budget cuts.
About 7.5 percent of the state general fund is now devoted to the universities, the governor said, far less than the 13.4 percent they received in 1967. Almost 11 percent of the state's $90 billion budget is dedicated to prisons, Schwarzenegger said. Data from the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office show slightly different figures: 9.6 percent for prisons and 5.9 percent for universities.
Education leaders -- and even some critics -- called the plan to shore up the suffering schools "bold" and "visionary." But some said the proposal would be another sign of the state's bad habit of tying its hands when it comes to the budget.
"The governor, when he first took office, complained about autopilot budgeting," said Steve Boilard, higher-education chief for the Legislative Analyst's Office. "This is just another form of autopilot budgeting.
"Why would you want to lock in these priorities forever?"
Schwarzenegger's proposal would need either the approval of two-thirds of the Legislature or hundreds of thousands of California voters before it could even appear on the ballot. The plan would exclude community colleges, and lawmakers would be able to suspend the 10-percent guarantee in tough years.
The UC and Cal State leaders released statements applauding the proposal. UC President Mark Yudof said it "represents a fundamental restoration of the values and priorities that have made California great," while Cal State Chancellor Charles Reed offered a more tempered response.
"The administration deserves credit for proposing this idea," Reed said, "and we look forward to working closely with them on the details."
Community colleges already have a minimum funding guarantee as part of Proposition 98 requirements, which also apply to K-12 schools. State community-college Chancellor Jack Scott said he would ask that the UC and Cal State systems be required to accept a minimum number of transfer students in order to qualify under the governor's plan.
The proposal would be helpful for the universities, which have lost billions in state funding in the past few years, Scott said.
"I happen to applaud the idea that we ought to spend more on higher education than on prisons," he said.
If state voters approve the amendment, funding would begin shifting from prisons to universities as early as 2011. By 2014-15, prisons would be limited to 7 percent of the state budget.
The proposal sets up what could be a bitter fight with the influential union that represents prison guards, and some lawmakers were not sure what to think of the plan after Schwarzenegger's speech. Universities certainly could use the extra money, said Assemblyman Paul Cook, R-Yucaipa, but funding guarantees tend to cause problems.
"I don't like to paint myself into a corner," said Cook, a member of the Assembly Higher Education Committee. "I'm a little nervous when you start talking about percentages."
Matt Krupnick covers higher education. Contact him at 925-943-8246.