By Peter Henderson
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - A battle to save California's schools through ballot box politics is turning ugly as two competing campaigns and their allies train their focus on each other, risking both initiatives.
California voters have shown profound skepticism about raising taxes, but a ballot measure sponsored by Governor Jerry Brown is squeaking by in polls ahead of the November election. However, Brown is promoting his measure in terms that his rival considers unfairly similar to her own, and she is fighting back.
Schools in the Golden State, once the envy of the nation, are now 47th in terms of per pupil spending. State budget crises in recent years have made the matter worse, and Brown's most recent budget depends on revenue from his ballot measure.
Propositions have become a major way for voters to direct California policy, but the process is often messy, as ballots are crowded with initiatives.
This year there are 11. Tax proponents fear both education tax measures may fail because of infighting.
The two launched very similar ads in the last two weeks, led by Proposition 38, the schools tax initiative by activist Molly Munger, which trails with something over 40 percent support in recent public polls.
"Prop 38 sends billions of new education dollars straight to our local schools and guarantees that politicians can't touch it. Thirty-eight will restore the education cuts from Sacramento," said the first Prop 38 ad, released a couple of weeks ago.
Brown's Proposition 30 team echoed that last week.
"Thirty will restore funding for our schools and colleges and prevent billions in new cuts. With strict accountability, money must go to the classroom and can't be touched by Sacramento," its ad said.
"It was grand theft," of Prop 38's themes, and required a direct response, Prop 38 spokesman Nathan Ballard said. Munger, the daughter of Warren Buffett's business partner, billionaire Charles Munger Sr., added $3 million this week to her war chest, on top of the $31 million she had already committed, and she launched a direct comparison ad on Tuesday.
"Prop 30 sends money in here," the new ad says, showing a cartoon of dollars going into a schoolhouse, "but lets the politicians take it out here," it continues, showing money come out the back.
Brown's plan would free up revenue for use on other projects, but state rules mandate that part of any extra tax receipts be put toward education.
His proposal would raise income taxes for those earning more than $250,000 for seven years and the state sales tax by a quarter of a cent for four years. In the early years it would raise $6 billion annually, and its passage would avoid trigger cuts targeting education built into the current budget.
Prop 38 would raise income taxes, with the wealthiest paying the most. Those earning more than $2.5 million would see taxes rise 2.2 percentage points. It would raise about $10 billion annually for 12 years. In the first four years, 30 percent would go to debt payment, and the rest goes to local schools, which would decide how to use it.
The state Parent Teachers Association, which backs the Munger plan, did not pay for the new ad and does not appear on it. Ballard said many allies of his plan were neutral on 30. "We don't want to put them in an uncomfortable position," he said.
Union chiefs and Democratic politicians backing Brown this week sent Munger a letter, which they released, calling her criticism "disingenuous," her plan "destructive" and urging her to avoid attacks.
Dan Newman, a spokesman for the Brown measure, said his team would not engage in negative campaigning, and he called Munger's criticism of Prop 30 ads "tragic."
"We have five ads, and every one of them is purely positive," he said by email.
(Reporting By Peter Henderson; editing by Todd Eastham)