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Bernie Sanders' Ideas Are Catching On In California Legislature

Ben Adler / Capital Public Radio

Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Paramount) and members of his caucus announce a $1.6 billion state budget proposal intended to allow California college students who attend a UC or CSU to complete their degrees without incurring student loan debt.

Ben Adler / Capital Public Radio

Bernie Sanders didn’t win California’s Democratic presidential primary last year, but his platform is getting real traction in the state Legislature.

Assembly Democrats are putting forth a plan they say will allow in-state college students to graduate debt-free.

The goal is to help students whose families earn too much money to be fully covered by existing financial aid programs like Cal Grants and the “Middle Class Scholarship” – but not enough to fully foot the cost of attending college.

“The bottom line is that with our ‘Degrees, Not Debt’ proposal, California is taking the boldest step in the nation toward making college debt-free,” says Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Paramount).

The program would also cover costs beyond tuition, like room, board and textbooks. Families would still be expected to chip in – as would students, through part-time jobs.

“We’re looking to implement the program this year and start phasing it in as monies are available in the state budget,” says Asm. Kevin McCarty (D-Sacramento), who chairs the budget subcommittee that oversees California's higher education system. McCarty says the caucus hopes to phase its proposal in over a five-year period starting with the 2018-19 fiscal year.

The proposal would use state funding to cover what student loans are expected to cover now – a cost pegged at $1.6 billion.

That figure drew concern from Governor Jerry Brown’s administration, which called debt-free college a noble goal – but a costly one.

“This is a proposal that comes with a significant price tag, at a time when we have seen recently declining revenues, and we have to close a budget gap of $1.6 billion,” says H.D. Palmer with the governor's Department of Finance, adding that the administration will study the proposal before commenting more specifically.

Brown has also called for phasing out the Middle Class Scholarship in his January budget proposal. That program, in its toddlerhood, is a key building block for the debt-free college plan. Assembly Democrats will reject the governor's proposed phase-out as they craft their own budget proposal, meaning it will be an issue in negotiations with Brown and Senate Democrats later this spring.

Palmer and Asm. Rocky Chavez (R-Oceanside) both say the state could better reduce costs by working to make it easier for students to graduate within four years.

“(The Assembly Democrats' proposal) falls short, because of not dealing with the structural problems of the CSUs or the UCs and focusing strictly on money,“ Chavez says. “It’s not just a money problem; it’s a leadership problem.”

But the proposal echoes a key plank of Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign platform: free tuition at public colleges and universities. And it follows a bill introduced last month that seeks to create a “single-payer” health care system in California.

That’s no coincidence, says Ben Tulchin, the San Francisco-based pollster who worked for the Sanders campaign.

“Many people within the Democratic Party are recognizing that you can’t be incremental in this moment. You have to think big,“ he says. “You need big, bold solutions to the serious problems we’re facing as a country and as a state.”

Even, Tulchin says, if those proposals stall – or get scaled back before they pass.

Although Brown has demonstrated a reluctance to sign on to costly new programs, he's termed out in 2018. It's likely that at least some of the candidates lining up to replace him – such as Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom – will be more open to proposals like single-payer health care or debt-free college.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the goal of the Assembly Democrats' proposal was to help students whose families earn too much money to be covered by existing financial aid programs. We meant to say that the plan's goal is to help students whose families earn too much money to be fully covered by existing programs. We regret the error.

Ben Adler

Capitol Bureau Chief

Capitol Bureau Chief Ben Adler first became a public radio listener in the car on his way to preschool – though not necessarily by choice. Now, he leads Capital Public Radio’s state Capitol coverage, which airs on NPR stations across California.  Read Full Bio 

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