Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Bad laws made at several different levels

I wrote about the budget crisis in California on Sunday, the state's unwillingness to tax oil companies for extracting petroleum from Californian soil, which makes California the only state out of 22 oil producing American states that doesn't tax this transaction. While oil extraction revenues wouldn't be a magic cure-all, they would go some distance in making up the shortfall, and some of the draconian cuts to health care or some of the steep increases in fees could have been avoided.

One fee increase I pay close attention to is the cost of tuition at community colleges. Arnold Schwarzenegger became governor of the state in a special election in late 2003, and he declared an immediate budget emergency and began to cut services and raise fees. When he took office, the cost for one unit at any state community college was $11. The next term at the beginning of 2004, besides slashing classes and effectively putting me out of work for a semester, Schwarzenegger also instituted a rate hike to $18 per unit for classes, a 64% increase. A student taking 16 units saw the price of a semester's tuition jump from $176 to $288, and enrollment dropped. In California, community colleges are still a great bargain compared to the UC system or Cal State universities, but this jump priced many students out of the market. This was followed by another hike in 2005 to $26 per unit. Students put pressure on lawmakers and the price dropped in 2007 to $20 per unit, but as of this fall term the price has jumped back up to $26 per unit, meaning the student taking 16 units pays $416 per semester. This would work out to a 17% yearly inflation rate for tuition since the Governator took office.

To add a further burden to students, a new mandatory fee of $31 was levied on students taking at least 9 semester units at the Peralta Colleges, for which the students get to ride the on the local bus system AC Transit by just flashing their student IDs. This fee was instituted by a referendum held last spring at all four campuses, and it passed overwhelmingly.

The problem with this overwhelming mandate is that it is hard to get information to all students at commuter schools, and only about 1,000 people voted out of a population of 11,000.

Before the referendum, the school had cut a deal with AC Transit for students who used the bus to purchase a $50 Easy Pass that was good for the entire semester. This price was a great bargain. For less than half the cost of a month's worth of unlimited bus rides, students could get four months' worth of rides. About 1,000 students availed themselves of the program.

But now a useful voluntary program has been replaced with a mandatory fee. Of the 10,000 or so students who don't use the bus but will be forced to buy the Easy Pass anyway, perhaps some will realize they can use the bus instead of driving. But many will not opt for that, as the bus can add a lot of time to a commute, and the service isn't very reliable. (I speak from bitter experience. When the weather is bad, I use AC Transit to get from the Coliseum BART station to Mills College, instead of taking a fifteen minute bike ride.) Moreover, many students are in situations where they commute by walking or riding their bikes, and the bus is completely useless to them, at least for getting to school.

Another complicating factor is that two of the four Peralta colleges are less than a block away from BART stations, Laney College near the Lake Merritt station and Berkeley City College near the Downtown Berkeley station. AC Transit runs bus service from train station to train station over much of the East Bay, but it is much slower and less reliable than BART, which has some reliability issues of its own. For example, a commute I used to take, BayFair BART to Downtown Berkeley BART, is duplicated by the bus system, but the train ride is 30 minutes while the bus takes 70 minutes. Even if the 70 minute ride were free, I probably would pay the fare, which is currently $3.05. Forty minutes of my time definitely worth at least three bucks to me, and I am rarely so strapped for cash that the equation changes enough to change my mind.

This fee is supposed to be in place for the next six years. I hope the by-laws of the college district allow another election that can rescind the mandatory fee, because now this is just theft from a financially strapped population into the coffers of a not very well run bus system to the tune of about $700,000 a year.

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