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Activists camp out at state Capitol to protest tuition hikes

Tuition hikes protested at California CapitolAbout 200 students and activists were camped out beneath the rotunda of California's state Capitol on Monday afternoon to protest cuts to higher education, even as the state's top Democrats who made the cuts tried to claim the demonstrators' side.

The hours-long vigil beneath the dome followed a morning rally that featured thousands of demonstrators and an all-star lineup of Democratic elected officials that included Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, Assembly Speaker John A. Perez (D-Los Angeles) and Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento).

Gov. Jerry Brown, who signed a budget last year that slashed state university funding by 23%, did not attend the rally. But he said through a spokeswoman: "The students today are reflecting the frustrations of millions of Californians who have seen their public schools and universities eroded year after year. That's why it's imperative that we get more tax revenue this November."

Brown wants voters to approve a tax hike in November that would combine a temporary half-cent sales tax hike, which would fall on all consumers, with increases on higher incomes. But many of Monday's demonstrators favor a competing tax proposal to permanently increase taxes on millionaires.

At the rally, Steinberg acknowledged Democrats' roles in tuition hikes over the last year. "We've cut billions of dollars and I've hated every minute of it.," he told the crowd.

Perez, who helped shepherd last year's austerity budget through the Legislature, touted his proposal to close a $1-billion tax loophole for out-of-state corporations in order to free up funds for more scholarships. "California is watching you, and I know the people of our state are going to hear you today," he said.

Republicans issued a statement blaming Democrats for the tuition hikes, noting that the increases were a response to the majority party's budget. Democrats replied that the hikes occurred only because GOP members refused to vote for tax increases.

Inside the building, activists and students prepared for possible civil disobedience when the Capitol closes at 6 p.m. Some filled out paperwork to identify themselves if arrested, while the CHP cut off access to the marble-floored area under the rotunda.

Activist Joseph Dobzynski, 33, didn't want to leave. The Cal State Channel Islands analyst is an official in the union representing CSU staff. He also has a 7-year-old and is dismayed at what's happening to the state's universities.

"Children like mine are going to be priced out of higher education," he said.

Just before 4 p.m., Newsom stopped by to chat with demonstrators inside the rotunda. He listened politely as the group debated its next steps using the procedurally exhaustive, non-hierarchical process that the Occupy movement has made famous.

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-- Chris Megerian in Sacramento

Photo: Demonstrators line up to enter California's state Capitol building, where hundreds camped out for hours Monday afternoon. Credit: John G. Mangabalo / EPA

 
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