LOS ANGELES (AP) — Facing a high-risk election next month, Gov. Jerry Brown began campaigning publicly Tuesday to win support for a proposed tax increase that he promises will invigorate California universities long trapped in cycles of cutbacks and tuition increases.
Appearing at the University of California, Los Angeles, the Democratic governor said he recognized the state was in tough economic times, a statement that appeared aimed at voters who might be uneasy about sending more tax dollars to Sacramento when household budgets are stressed — lately by runaway gas prices.
To make California exceptional, taxpayers needed to open their wallets to strengthen the next generation, he said. Brown never mentioned specifics of his Proposition 30, which would boost the sales tax by a quarter cent for four years, while income taxes for people who make more than $250,000 a year would be raised for seven years.
"A lot is riding on this election," Brown told several hundred students gathered on an outdoor plaza. "This is not just about a tax. This is also about California."
Brown has made passage of the proposal his top priority, but recent polls have found only tepid support from likely voters, with many others undecided. He alternately expressed confidence and a sense of urgency that students get involved and push friends and family to vote so tuition would remain in check.
"My plea to you is don't be complacent. We can win. ... You can avoid that tuition hike if you get out and do some things," Brown said. "I'm going to go up and down the state and mobilize everybody I can."
It was Brown's first public campaign appearance since August for the initiative, which if rejected calls for $6 billion in spending cuts, mostly to K-12 schools.
Students in the crowd were overwhelmingly in favor of the proposition, saying they feared another round of higher costs.
Years of state budget cuts have led to skyrocketing tuition and reduced course offerings at California's two- and four-year colleges. Undergraduate tuition in the UC system is $12,191 this year, not including room, board, books or campus fees. In the 2000-01 academic year, UC's base tuition was $3,429.
"I've seen tuition prices go up and up," said library science graduate student Kelsey Knox, 22, who said she had worked as a dormitory adviser to help make ends meet. "Education is something we need."
At one point Brown gently taunted a handful of students who chanted "Down with Brown" and held up signs calling for defeat of the proposition. "Hey, that's pathetic," he said when he urged them to chant in unison.
Jake Akers, a 19-year-old history and Russian language student holding a "No on 30" sign, said he was weary of mounting debt and irresponsible spending in Sacramento.
"To ask for even more money is ridiculous," he said.
Brown defended television commercials airing in support of his initiative that misstate how billions of dollars could be spent and claim the money "can't be touched by Sacramento politicians."
While some of the money raised would go to public schools, it also would free up billions of dollars for the state's general fund budget, where politicians in the Legislature could spend it on public safety, health care or other programs.
When asked about the claim that the new dollars would be shielded from the whims of Sacramento legislators, Brown said it's "absolutely true."
At another point he said it was an "absolute legal guarantee" but added, "It's true, of course, that we have a government and the government is led by elected officials and they are able to spend the money that is in the general fund. That's true, whether this initiative or any initiative."
Brown's proposal recently came under attack by Molly Munger, a wealthy civil rights attorney who is sponsoring a rival tax initiative on the Nov. 6 ballot, and Munger's brother, a Republican who has contributed millions of dollars to a committee trying to defeat it.
The attack ads by Molly Munger are no longer running, and Brown said, "I'm just glad she's following a more positive line."