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Calif. Lawmakers Reapprove $500 Million for Schools

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The California legislature hurried into emergency session last week to reapprove $500 million in state aid to schools that had been put in question by Gov. Pete Wilson.

The action provided a brief but intense coda to the state's summerlong budget deadlock, which had ended the week before with an agreement to reduce state education aid some $2 billion.

In signing the budget pact, the Governor had vetoed on technical grounds a portion of the main program of state education funding.

While Mr. Wilson maintained that the funds would be restored when the legislature reconvenes in December, Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig argued that the funds effectively had been lost and would lead to further cutbacks in local school budgets.

In the days following Mr. Wilson's action, observers said, local school officials become increasingly concerned about the fate of the money.

Lawmakers and the Governor quickly agreed that a one-day session was needed to restore the money and put school officials' minds at ease.

In 10 minutes last week, the Assembly and Senate unanimously approved a new version of the bill, which the Governor promptly promised to sign.

A Technical Glitch

The origin of the problem came when officials in the Wilson administration, who were drafting the language of the spending compromise, failed to include language suspending automatic provisions for cost-of-living and enrollment increases in many categorical school programs. The final agreement provided no new funding in those programs, except for enrollment growth in special education.

Lawmakers were not aware of the glitch when they gave final approval to the budget agreement. The problem was noted by the time the funding bill arrived on Mr. Wilson's desk, however.

Citing the apparent oversight, the Governor used his line-item-veto authority to take out a total of $425 million in basic state aid to districts. The money needed to be held in reserve, he argued, in case some district officials sued the state to enforce the mandated increases in the categorical programs.

Administration officials insisted that the problem would soon be corrected and that the veto would have no practical effect on districts. "We believe this is solely a matter of technical cleanup and anticipate no problems in obtaining the legislature's approval when it returns,'' Secretary of Child Development and Education Maureen DiMarco wrote in a letter to Mr. Honig.

But the state schools chief heatedly rejected the Governor's position, calling it a "$500 million double cross'' and warning that it could cost schools $100 per pupil.

Mr. Honig insisted that local districts were obligated by law to make their spending plans conform to the actual level of state aid in the budget, despite the administration's assurances that more money would be forthcoming.

"If this issue is not resolved in the next week,'' Mr. Honig warned in a letter to the Governor, "I will be forced to tell school districts to reduce their budgets to bring them in conformity with this lower appropriation.''

'Crazy With Rhetoric'

While lawmakers and the Governor acknowledged that legislative action was needed to restore the funds, there was sharp criticism of Mr. Honig's response to the situation.

Mr. Honig "went crazy with his rhetoric around the state of California,'' said the leader of the Republican minority in the Senate, Sen. Ken Maddy. "That brought us back.''

Some observers suggested that the warnings by Mr. Honig were a way to focus criticism on Mr. Wilson after the Governor largely won his budget battle.

But some educators rallied to the superintendent's defense.

"He was right to say that the Governor's veto set-aside puts into question the future of those dollars,'' said Kevin Gordon, the director of government relations for the California School Boards Association. "There was a need to quell the lack of understanding of what was going on. School budget officials are smart enough to realize what a veto does to those dollars.''

The legislature's action restored $487.8 million in school funds, while also making clear that there was no mandate for additional spending on the categorical programs.

Lawmakers also approved a separate bill to restore $24.5 million for grants to 140 districts to restructure their curricula and teaching practices.

Officials in the Governor's office said last week that Mr. Wilson will sign the main funding restoration, but had not yet decided what to do with the restructuring grants.

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