While voters across the nation were glued to their screens last night counting electoral votes, the higher education community was holding its breath awaiting the answers on a number of important ballot initiatives, proving this year’s election was truly about more than blue and red for higher ed.
Perhaps the most important ballot initiative passed was in California, where Proposition 30—which will raise sales tax by one cent for every $4 spent for four years and increase the income tax on the state’s wealthiest for seven years—was given a nod by 53.3 percent of the state’s voters.
“I would say more than any other state referendum involving higher education, this one will have the most immediate and positive effect,” shares Daniel J. Hurley, director of state relations and policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.
It’s a plan that Gov. Jerry Brown campaigned on two years ago, and one that will avert immediate cuts of $250 million from both the California State University and University of California systems and $300 million from the California Community Colleges System.
“While there was a lot of discussion from the presidential election on down about class warfare, the voters didn’t send the message saying ‘tax the rich in the state,’ they said even in dire economic times, they still want to see increased public investment in K-20 education and they’re willing to pay for it personally, and that’s a heck of a message that I hope state lawmakers received.”
Terry Hartle, senior vice president at the American Council on Education, says the approval of Prop. 30 is a good sign for public institutions across the country.
“I think everyone in American higher education who cares about the future of public colleges and universities is breathing a sigh of relief,” he shares. “Over the past five or six years, California has been dismantling its best colleges. If [Prop. 30] hadn’t been approved, that process would have accelerated. It takes a long time to create good public colleges and universities; unfortunately, you can undermine them substantially very quickly by failing to provide them the resources to operate at the highest levels.”
The Maryland Dream Act, signed into law by Gov. Martin O’Malley in 2011 and defended in referendum yesterday, is another initiative that higher ed organizations hope will send a message to the rest of the country. The act allows undocumented students who have completed 60 credits at or graduated from one of the state's community colleges to receive in-state tuition rates at a state college. It is expected to affect about 435 students each year.
“I think everyone in American higher education who cares about the future of public colleges and universities is breathing a sigh of relief." —Terry Hartle, ACE
“I would like to think that it lends further encouragement to the Obama administration and members of the senate and congress from both parties that, if done in a rational way, a federal Dream Act would be supported by citizens,” says Hurley. “I would say that, but I think the more important outcome of this is the message that it sends to both proponents and opponents of the policy in other states. I was a little bit worried that in a Democratically-leaning state, if they failed to pass this measure, then it might set up a domino effect in the 12 other states that offer in-state rates to incentivize opposition groups there.” Currently, California, Illinois, New Mexico, Texas, Connecticut, Kansas, Nebraska, New York, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Utah, and Washington have a similar act in place.
Also passed was New Jersey’s Question 1, a capital outlay bond question that will allow the state to borrow $750 million for buildings and upgrades at the state’s colleges, which have not been provided with state capital construction money since 1988.
Not making the cut was Missouri's Tobacco Tax Initiative that would have raised taxes on cigarettes to help fund the state’s K-12 and higher ed schools.