It's the multi-billion dollar question, and Gov. Jerry Brown seems to know he's going to get it on the campaign trail. A lot.
How can he proclaim his Proposition 30 to be about money for schools when only a portion of the temporary tax proceeds would go to education?
"When the state budget's in trouble, schools are in trouble," said Brown on Wednesday as he officially launched the Prop 30 campaign. "The two are inextricably linked."
Even so, the most noticeable impact to public schools in California may be if the governor's temporary income and sales tax initiative is rejected by voters: a $6 billion automatic cut in state spending, the vast majority of which would come out of K-12 education.
"This is not about Jerry Brown," he said. "This is about the people of California making the choice."
The governor's event in front of a south Sacramento charter school had all the makings of a traditional tax initiative campaign: kids, teachers, advocates for additional revenue. Brown's initiative, even before it was placed atop the lengthy November 6 ballot, was destined to be the year's marquee measure. Its fate may shape not only the state's future, but also the legacy of its iconoclast governor.
And the initiative is complicated. Not only does it raise taxes at varying amounts for a varying number of years, but Prop 30 also puts all of the tax revenues in a special account just for education. That seems to be the technical reason some of its backers say that it's money for education. But as the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office has pointed out, only a portion of that money is likely to go to new school dollars; most of it will help ease fiscal pressures on the state budget's general fund.
In the weeks since the ballot's cast of characters was settled, the seas have become somewhat unsettled for Brown's effort. Most notable, the public's attention has been directed towards a state parks controversy that begs the question of whether government is a good steward of taxpayer dollars.
That's given anti-tax advocates a natural hook for their argument. So, too, has the Legislature's action... or lack of action... on issues like a state rainy day reserve proposal pushed back to the 2014 ballot, and public employee pension changes.
"If they get their tax revenue, there's no incentive to move toward the reforms," said Joel Fox, one of the leaders of the No on Prop 30 effort. "We have to keep the pressure on them [lawmakers] to get the reforms that are necessary."
But Brown's tax measure will also come under attack by backers of an alternative tax hike, Proposition 38, that's earmarked solely for schools. Perhaps not a traditional attack, but certainly a campaign that will attempt to paint a stark contrast with the governor's proposition.
"Backers of Proposition 30 are trying to persuade voters that their measure is good for public schools," said Prop 38 spokesman Nathan Ballard in an email. "It's good stagecraft, but in reality, Prop 38 is better."
And to hammer home that point, Ballard noted that the Sacramento school chosen by the governor's campaign team would receive less than half as much money next year under his measure as under Prop 38.
"There are a lot of other measures on the ballot," said Brown when I asked him about the calculation Thursday morning. "People have to decide what they want."
And if the pro-schools message doesn't resonate, the governor seems prepared to play the other card in the Prop 30 deck: that automatic spending cut in store if the initiative is defeated.
"Only this measure saves cuts this year," Brown told reporters after his event. "There's no doubt about it."