Friday, February 3, 2012





Amid the welter of prospective initiatives and referenda whose sponsors hope they’ll reach the ballot this year, one stands out as increasingly necessary: The proposed “Tax Oil for Education” measure.

It’s true that as with several of the others, California voters have previously seen and rejected parts of this idea. Less than four years ago, another initiative to tax oil pumped from California wells was resoundingly defeated after an advertising campaign that convinced many that it would substantially raise the price of gasoline.

A lot has changed since then, including the specifics of the proposal. Last time around, the oil severance tax money would have gone to the state’s general fund, where it could be used for anything at all. This time, the money is earmarked just for education, with elementary and high schools to get about $1.48 of the $3.5 billion the initiative sponsors expect it to raise each year, while the California State University system would get $560 million, the University of California $440 million and community colleges about $1.5 billion.

Those would be neat chunks of change for educational systems that have fallen on hard times since voters last considered a tax on oil drilling.

In that time, budget cuts eliminated many school libraries, school nurses, some athletic teams and many counselors, while reducing curricular offerings and increasing class sizes. Tuition has risen about 30 percent at Cal State campuses, about 20 percent at UC campuses and community colleges. Yes, this state’s campuses are still a bargain compared with some other state systems, but the higher price tag is forcing out more and more promising students.

One thing that hasn’t changed is that California remains the only oil producing state in America with no severance tax. Oil severance taxes are the reason every Alaskan gets an annual stipend of about $2,000 from state government. That’s a gift of just under $10,000 yearly for every family of five. Oil severance taxes also provide the funds that allow Texas to entice businesses away from California with free or discounted land, free infrastructure for their new facilities and tax breaks for the first few years they’re in Texas. And so on. California gets no benefit to speak of from oil produced here – despite the fact it ranks seventh among the states in oil production, gasoline prices here are the highest anywhere in the nation.

This picture translates into the simple reality that the oil severance levy is needed to ensure California's future more than any other single initiative now proposed. For when deserving students are denied the opportunity to attend public universities or to get the most possible out of public elementary and high schools strictly for financial reasons, the state’s future starts looking uncertain. For sure, California’s colleges and universities have been the cornerstone of its status as a world leader in fields like technology, entertainment and agriculture. That can’t be maintained without a well-educated populace.

One other reality has not changed since the last time voters saw an oil severance measure: Oil companies still price gasoline based on their worldwide costs rather than the expense of drilling in any one locale. Because of this, drivers in the Czech Republic will share in the cost of a California severance tax, just as Californians now pay their share of the severance taxes levied by states from Alaska to Louisiana. So the cost of a gallon of gas will not rise noticeably because of a severance tax, despite what oil company-financed ads opposing the measure will surely say.

And then there are the specific terms of the initiative: The money raised could only be used for class size reductions, instructional materials like books and computers, hiring new teachers and rehiring some who have been laid off, plus restoring class offerings that have been cut.

Put it all together and you have a more compelling measure than Californians were offered the last time. Also one that’s needed by many more people than other planned initiatives now circulating, including ones to legalize and regulate marijuana, prevent teaching of gay history in public schools and repeal many of the state’s environmental laws and regulations.

The question now is whether voters who constantly tell poll takers they would gladly support new taxes to fund education will put their votes where their mouths have been.


Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit

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