By Ruth Conniff
School districts, teachers and parents across California breathed a collective sigh of relief Wednesday after voters threw a lifeline to the state's struggling education system by approving a $6 billion-a year tax initiative.
Proposition 30, a hallmark of Gov. Jerry Brown's administration, won by almost eight percentage points, despite a campaign fraught with ups and downs.
Challenges included a rival proposition bankrolled by attorney Molly Munger, daughter of Warren Buffet's business partner Charles Munger, and negative attacks financed with the help of $11 million in donations from a mysterious Arizona-based group.
The proposition raises income taxes on California's wealthiest citizens -- those earning over $250,000 a year -- and ups the sales tax temporarily by a quarter-cent. Most of the funds are slated for schools and colleges, although a small percentage will be used to fund other public services.
News of the proposition's passage soothed the nerves of educators throughout the state. At an elementary school in Southern California's Ojai Valley, where teachers faced 15 additional furlough days had the measure not passed, staff posted a hand-made "Thank you!" sign outside the school grounds.
"Everybody had a little spring in their step today," said Principal Katherine White. "The staff did not sleep well last night, but you wouldn't know that today. They're happy."
The tax increase will also provide funds for higher education. Following the results of Tuesday's vote, California State University announced it would rescind a $249 rise in tuition rates implemented earlier this year.
Meanwhile, campaign organizers for Proposition 37 -- a landmark initiative to require labeling of genetically modified food -- reacted with defiance to news of the measure's defeat. The proposition lost 47 to 53 percent despite a strong show of public support for the measure early in the campaign. Organizers blamed the downfall on a ferocious negative advertising campaign led by deep-pocketed biotech companies.
"Ultimately this was a loss that had to do with being outspent by the opponents," said Stacy Malkan, spokesman for the California Right to Know campaign. "A lot of misinformation got out to voters."
Activists vowed to keep up the fight for GMO labeling by applying pressure at both the federal and state level. Supporters are now gathering signatures to put a similar proposition on the ballot in the state of Washington next November.
A majority of Californians also rejected an attempt to replace the death penalty with life without parole. Supporters of the repeal had argued that, moral arguments aside, the death penalty is too costly for taxpayers. Seventeen states have already outlawed capital punishment.
State voters did agree to soften California's "three strikes" law. Third-time offenders can now only be sentenced to life in prison if their latest infraction is serious or violent.
As expected, an attempt by moneyed conservatives to curb union influence by restricting organized labor's ability to raise funds and contribute to political campaigns fell flat. Voters rejected the measure 56 to 44 percent.
"I'm ecstatic that it failed," said Stephen Blum, president of the teacher's union in Ventura County, just north of Los Angeles. "Our adversaries may have a lot of money, but we have a lot people and we were on the side of right ... This was a victory for the American way."
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