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By Miriam Raftery
October 2, 2011 (El Cajon )—Students and faculty in the Grossmont College Media Communications Department had an opportunity to apply their journalism skills as they posed questions to Assemblyman Marty Block, who visited the campus last week to discuss impacts of state budget cuts. Chair of the Assembly Higher Education Committee and currently a candidate for State Senate,  Block fielded questions on a variety of education issues—offering candid assessments on the state budget shortfall as well as on diminishing access to affordable higher education for California students.

"It’s tragic,” Block said of state budget cut impacts, after faculty member Don Harrison noted that 212 classes have been cut at Grossmont College. “We’ve lost 25 to 30 percent of our revenues,” he revealed, noting that California’s revenues have dropped from $120 billion to $85 billion since his election three years ago.  The drop is due to people losing homes and jobs, reducing the state’s income, property and sales tax revenues, he said. “We can’t do more with less…The system needs more money.”

Fifty years ago, California ‘s Legislature created a master plan for education which promised access, affordability and quality. “With the economic downturn, we are no longer providing access that we should provide,” added Block, who expressed empathy for students facing problems getting classes due to budget cuts. 

In the Legislature, where Republicans have stood united against any revenue increases, all-cuts budgets have slashed funds for everything from public safety to education. While higher education was largely spared deep cuts last year, Block said major funding cutbacks for higher education appear all but inevitable for the coming year, since Democrats don’t have the two-thirds majority needed to raise revenues without Republican support.
That includes local Republican legislators. “When it comes to funding education, Brian Jones, your Assemblymember has failed you,” Block told students, adding that he has worked with legislators across the political aisle on other issues, including the passage of Chelsea’s law with Republican Nathan Fletcher.
Asked his solution to the budget gap, Block said, “We need to tax millionaires, tax oil companies and tax tobacco to help you…By cutting higher education, it’s guaranteeing that the California economy will continue to spiral downward.”
Block told students he sought to fund higher education with an Assembly bill that would have imposed an oil severance tax on oil pumped in California, but the bill failed to win passage. He dismissed critics claims that oil companies might move jobs out of California, noting that every other oil-producing state has a similar tax. “You can’t just pick up an oil well and say, `Let’s move it.’” He further noted that any increase at the pump would be spread out worldwide, with minimal impact to California motorists.
Block is no stranger to the classroom. Besides having taught history and leadership courses as a professor, the legislative leader has served as dean at San Diego State University, president of San Diego County Board of Education, and president of the San Diego Community College District Board of Trustees.
The educator-turned-legislator emphasized that now is not the time to raise taxes on the middle class, and would also oppose eliminating property tax benefits to homeowners under Proposition 13. However he would support some changes to Proposition 13 to increase assessments on commercial property owners.
“SDG&E will be in the same building for 150 years,” he quipped. “So large mega multi-national corporations are getting many times the benefit of Grandma and Grandpa, while their kids are getting an inferior education and Grandma and Grandpa get inferior healthcare.” He expressed hope that after the 2012 elections, the State Senate may have enough votes to pass a bill that would raises taxes on millionaires, as well as on California corporations that “pay no taxes and stash their assets offshore.”

At the event, questions were posed by a panel consisting of Sue Gonda, a history professor and presidentof the Academic Senate, Russ Lindquist, editor of the Grossmont College Summit newspaper, and Marc Arizmendez, news director of Griffin Radio. In addition, Block fielded questions from students in the audience.

In response to a question from Gonda, Block made clear that he believes, “the state has no business getting involved in curricular matters. It’s not our job to tell faculty what to teach.”
On tuition hikes, Block pledged that any further rises in tuition would be accompanied by increased financial aid, but conceded that situation is far from ideal. 
One of Block’s biggest legislative successes was winning passage of a bill that restored guaranteed student admissions at San Diego State University, where 1,740 local students were turned down even though they met all requirements. “They said, `We’ll take students from Beverly Hills, not Paradise Hills,” he said of the SDSU policy which, according to Block, unduly favored out-of-town students for the sake of dorm fees.

More recently, a new Block measure was signed by Governor Jerry Brown to require that all California State University campuses notify students about the appeals process if they are denied admission.
AB 743, also authored by Block, would establish one assessment test for all community colleges statewide. It was introduced because many of the state’s 72 community colleges had different assessment tests, leading to frustrations for students forced to shop around for classes at various schools due to budget cuts, only to find different tests needed at each school. The bill is on the Governor’s desk.  

Another measure by Block,  AB 620, would require colleges to have a point-person for complaints over bullying. “At SDSU, I saw too many cases of discrimination,” he said, adding that bullying over race, religion or sexual orientation can lead to campus violence. He also spoke on the need for help to assist minorities who have had to overcome hardships. “We need to recognize hurdles and the difficulty in overcoming those…We need balance.”

Yet another Block bill currently on the Governor’s desk would require the Governor to notify the District Attorney and a victim’s family 10 days before commuting a convicted murderer’s sentence.   The bill arose after outgoing Governor Schwarzenegger commuted the sentence on the son of a friend convicted in an assault that resulted in death of a local student. “There shouldn’t be two sets of justice, one for friends and one for everybody else,” said Block.

Asked whether community colleges may someday offer bachelor’s degrees, Block replied, “I hope so.” He wants to see community colleges allowed to offer majors in a limited range of subjects such as nursing, where four-year programs elsewhere in a community are impacted.   The idea may have to wait, however, until funding situations improve or a means of accomplishing the goal without state funding can be found.
Block also discussed his climb up the political ladder, noting that he first ran for a school board seat after his students encouraged him to stop complaining and run for office. With 100 students helping, “I won,” he recalled. 

He also offered advice for students to attain successes of their own.   “What makes some students more effective?” asked Block, whose leadership course alumni include San Diego City Council President Kevin Falconer and other prominent individuals. “What these students have in common is organization,” he concluded, adding that successful students break down projects step by step, then go forward and achieve their goals.   


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