Bolstered by strong support in Los Angeles County and other Democratic strongholds, voters approved a historic tax-hike measure that will generate $6 billion annually and avert catastrophic cuts to California's public schools, colleges and universities.
Backed by Gov. Jerry Brown and bankrolled by organized labor, Proposition 30 was approved on Tuesday by a 54-46 margin, with late-night returns from Los Angeles County giving it a come-from-behind win. Voters also rejected rival Proposition 38, with less than 28 percent supporting the broad income-tax hike to fund education.
On Wednesday, political experts said turnout was key to the success of Prop. 30, with Democrats, Latinos and young people who turned out to re-elect President Barack Obama also voting to increase the state's sales tax and the income tax on the wealthy.
"It was saved by a transforming electorate who mobilized in the last few weeks," said Raphael Sonenshein, executive director at the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at Cal State Los Angeles.
At the same time, the issue resonated with voters concerned about the fate of California's struggling schools.
"Voters have been telling us in polls that the area they least want to see cut is schools and the area they would most be willing to see taxes go up is for schools," said Mark Baldassare, president of the Public Policy Institute of California.
Prop. 30 lagged for much of the night, creating worry for local educators as opposition from inland counties kept the percentage of yes votes below the 50 percent mark.
Their outlook brightened as San Francisco County came in with 77 percent approval, with more than 1.3 million voters in Los Angeles County pushing the tally over the 50 percent mark before midnight.
Prop. 30 raises the sales tax a quarter-percent for the next four years, starting Jan. 1, 2013. It also increases the tax rate on incomes of more than $250,000 for the next seven years, retroactive to Jan. 1, 2012.
An estimated $6 billion annually in revenue will plug a hole in this year's state budget and will begin repaying the per-pupil money that has been withheld from school districts during the recession.
Had the measure failed, public schools and community colleges would have had to cut $5.4 billion from this year's budgets, and the University of California and California State University systems would have lost $250 million each.
To cope with the cuts, school districts were widely expected to lop three weeks off their already shortened school year, from 175 to just 160 days. Community colleges would have had to slash thousands of courses, while tuition hikes were likely at the universities.
Now, however, Cal State will refund a $249 tuition hike to its 425,000 students and reconfigure financial aid packages as it readjusts tuition to last year's $5,472 rate. It will also start processing applications for next fall.
Community college system Chancellor Brice Harris said campuses will get an additional $210 million this fiscal year that can be used to enroll 20,000 more students.
And local school districts will be able to put aside new cost-cutting plans and even look for ways to begin stabilizing their operations.
In the state's largest school district, Los Angeles Unified, which would have had to cut $255 million this year, officials hope to cancel some of the 10 furlough days used to balance this year's budget and eventually restore some of the thousands of jobs lost to layoffs.
"No new cuts from the state means we can manage our own situation," Superintendent John Deasy said. "With the money borrowed from us replaced, we can finally begin to turn the corner."
Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics at USC, credited Brown with being able to overcome voter skepticism about state government and its expenditure of taxpayer money.
"Brown realized Prop. 30 is not a blank check, and he had to convince voters that they'd made the right decision," he said.
"Voters are very reluctant to raise taxes at any time, and they're even more reluctant to tax themselves. As skeptical as they are about about politicians, they're even more worried about the state of our public schools."
While voters were willing to make a small investment in public education - the quarter-percent sales tax is expected to cost consumers about $30 a year - they balked at Proposition 38's tax hike for incomes over $7,500.
"A broad-based tax increase is political poison on the ballot, and it didn't stand a chance," Sonenshein said.
In a victory speech late Tuesday in a hotel ballroom in Sacramento, Brown applauded voters for deciding to pour money into California's schools, which rank 47th for per-pupil spending.
"I know a lot of people had some doubts, had some questions - can we really go to the people and ask them for a tax?" Brown said. "Well here we are, we have a vote of the people.
"I think this is the only place in America where a state actually said, `Let's raise our taxes for our kids, for our schools, for our California dream."