Lawmaker visits Fresno State, touts tax to benefit higher ed

A state legislator and candidate for California Attorney General pushed his plan to generate more than $1 billion for higher education during a forum Wednesday at Fresno State.

Assembly Member Alberto Torrico, D-Newark, found a small but receptive audience of about 75 people -- including students who are chafing this year at paying more for less.

Torrico, the Assembly majority leader, said his bill -- AB 656 -- would supplement current state funding and head off more damage to students and public higher education systems.

This year, for example, the 23-campus California State University system endured a $564 million budget cut that translated into fewer classes, higher student fees, employee furloughs and reduced enrollment.

Torrico's bill, which is sponsored by the CSU faculty union, would create a tax on natural gas and oil extraction to benefit the University of California, CSU and community colleges. It includes provisions to prevent companies from passing on the expense to consumers.

A 12.5% tax would yield nearly $650 million annually for CSU, he said. Torrico said California is the only major oil-producing state that doesn't have such a tax, adding "it makes sense to ask oil companies to do their part."

Oil companies oppose the bill, he said, even though an educated work force also benefits that industry.

Wednesday, Californians Against Higher Taxes -- a coalition of business interests and taxpayer organizations -- issued a statement saying that the tax would kill nearly 10,000 jobs without solving the funding crisis for higher education.

CSU officials also have expressed concern over the bill. Torrico said that is because a new board would be created to administer and oversee the money.

Student organizers invited Torrico to Fresno State as part of a series of events and protests highlighting the toll of state-driven cuts. Torrico has been touring campuses to promote the bill.

Student organizer Mayra Miranda said she wasn't disappointed in Wednesday's small turnout. Many students are concentrating on upcoming final exams, she said.

Audience members were encouraged to sign cards in support of the bill. Torrico said he is trying to collect at least 100,000 signatures to present to the governor and state Legislature in January.

Also Wednesday, Torrico planned a campaign-related appearance in Fresno.