State Journal

Tobacco-Tax Cash a Calif. Pre-K Issue

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As part of his plan to close California's $40 billion budget deficit, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger wants to ask voters to eliminate a statewide panel that decides how to spend cigarette-tax money on programs for young children.

The California Children and Families Commission was formed when voters narrowly approved Proposition 10, in 1998.

Led by the actor, director, and early-childhood activist Rob Reiner, the ballot initiative created a 50-cents-a-pack tobacco tax, which pays for an array of early-childhood health and development programs through the statewide commission, also called First 5, as well as 58 county commissions.

Gov. Schwarzenegger's plan would redirect the money from the statewide commission and half of what the local panels receive to existing social services for children. The tax generates about $550 million each year, and about 20 percent of that is administered by the state commission.

But early-childhood advocates say that such a move would hurt the growth of early-education programs.

Both the state and local commissions "have really been engines for the most significant preschool expansion in California," said Catherine Atkin, the president of Preschool California, an Oakland-based advocacy group.

Kris Perry, the executive director of the state First 5 Commission, warned that local commissions might not be able to continue functioning because they are subsidized by the state commission.

The commission has received close scrutiny since before an unsuccessful 2006 ballot initiative that would have created a statewide universal pre-K program. That campaign was also led by Mr. Reiner, who chaired the state panel at the time.

Opponents of the measure, Proposition 82, suggested that an advertising campaign by the commission about the benefits of preschool was just a subtle attempt to persuade voters to approve the initiative, which would have raised taxes on wealthy Californians. ("Californians Set to Vote on Universal Pre-K Plan," May 24, 2006.)

Mr. Reiner later stepped down as chairman, and a state audit pointed to examples of poor financial oversight by the commission.

Vol. 28, Issue 19, Page 12

Published in Print: January 28, 2009, as Tobacco-Tax Cash a Calif. Pre-K Issue
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