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How to get that afternoon coffee away from voters

March 12, 2012 |  1:55 pm

John Deasy
The predictable plea in just about any tax campaign -- or for that matter, ad campaigns to get us to buy a small insurance plan, or some appliances -- is, "It's less money than your afternoon coffee." But like anything else, enough afternoon coffees add up to some real money.

On Tuesday, the Los Angeles Unified school board will hold a public hearing on a new parcel tax measure to raise $255 million a year, which is less than the state has been cutting from the district's budget. To get that amount, the voters would have to approve by a two-thirds majority a levy of $298 on each real estate parcel.

No sooner had the push been officially announced last week than Supt. John Deasy was breaking it down to what it would mean in smaller bites -- less than $25 a month. No one's gotten to the less-than-your-afternoon-coffee point yet, or the considerably-less-than-a-single-dinner-out-each-month point either, but it's surely only a matter of time.

All of this is absolutely true, but the question is whether this sort of breakdown is as effective as it used to be. The last few years have forced a lot of people to do away with a lot of niceties in life in order to pay down debts or overcome a period of unemployment. That one dinner out each month might be all they allow themselves, if they're still doing that. And seemingly every blogged bit of financial wisdom over the last year or two has started out with the folly of buying an afternoon coffee when you can make it at home for pennies.

People are trying to save for their retirements and for a rainy day; they've been told repeatedly about how they don't save enough, and there are signs that families are trying to improve on this score. The schools might be able to lay a claim on that extra almost-dollar a day, but for many, the rise in gasoline prices has already wiped it out.

None of this is to say that raising money for education isn't one of the finest things a society can do for itself and its children. It's just a question of whether the old sales pitches work, especially when they imply that people have adequate money and are simply being selfish or wrongheaded in the way they spend it. That might be more turnoff than incentive to vote yes.

The price of the tax isn't small. It's nearly $1,500 over the five years that it would be in effect. That's more than a few dinners -- for most voters, anyway.

Maybe a better message for our time is to acknowledge that this is a significant chunk of money but that the schools wouldn't be asking for it if they didn't need it in fairly desperate ways: to keep adult ed so illiterate adults can learn to read or new immigrants can learn the language of their adopted country, or to maintain preschool so children can enter kindergarten knowing some of those basics -- colors, letters, how to behave in a classroom -- that will be crucial to their academic success.

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--Karin Klein

Photo: LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy is seen during a regular meeting of the Los Angeles School Board on Feb. 7, 2012. Credit: Al Seib / Los Angeles Times

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