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Students, other protesters rally in Sacramento over budget and education cutbacks
SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) ' Chants, shouts and earnest proposals reverberated in the marble halls of the state Capitol on Monday as hundreds of protesters held a sit-in after a boisterous rally outside protesting state budget cuts to higher education.
The sit-in was staged after thousands of protesters swarmed the Capitol lawn, waving signs and chanting, "They say cut back, we say fight back."
"We were expecting to have a good future, but things are looking uncertain for a lot of families," said Alison Her, 19, a nursing student at California State University, Fresno. "I'm the oldest in my family and I want my siblings to be able to go to college, too."
Organizers had hoped that 10,000 protesters would demonstrate against rising tuition rates and demand that state lawmakers restore funding for higher education. But the actual turnout fell short.
After the rally, hundreds of students lined up to enter the Capitol and filled conference rooms and hallways inside. Some met with lawmakers to lobby for increased funding for higher education, while others headed for the rotunda.
California Highway Patrol officers allowed several hundred students to settle on the black and white marble floor of the rotunda before all four hallway entrances to the area were blocked. Another hundred students sat down in a hallway, communicating with fellow protesters by call and response.
CHP spokesman Sean Kennedy did not say why officers had closed off access to the rotunda but noted that the noisy protesters were interrupting the normal operations of the building, and might pose a fire hazard.
Gov. Jerry Brown said in a statement that the protest highlights the need for California voters to approve a tax increase he has proposed for the November ballot.
"The students today are reflecting the frustrations of millions of Californians who have seen their public schools and universities eroded year after year," Brown, a Democrat, said in a written statement. "That's why it's imperative that we get more tax revenue this November."
Brown's initiative would fund education and public safety programs by temporarily raising income taxes on people who make more than $250,000 a year and temporarily increasing the sales tax by half a cent.
The University of California Student Association has endorsed a rival initiative that would tax millionaires and earmark the revenue for education. The California Federation of Teachers and state PTA support that initiative.
Buses brought hundreds of students in from as far away as the University of California, Riverside, 450 miles south of Sacramento, for Monday's march.
The crowd was a sea of red and white, as many wore T-shirts that said "Refund our Education" and "March March."
There was a heavy police presence inside and around the Capitol building and on nearby streets, and a CHP helicopter flew overhead throughout the day.
Sam Resnick, 20, a history student at Pasadena City College, brought a tent with him to the rally.
"We want to show the state government that we care about our education, and we're not going to leave until they make it a priority," Resnick said.
Despite participation from outside groups, including Occupy movement protesters and supporters of the millionaire's tax, student organizers tried to keep the focus on education cuts that have led to steep tuition increases, restricted enrollment and fewer classes and student services at California's public colleges and universities.
Tuition has nearly doubled in the past five years, to $13,000 for resident undergraduates at University of California schools and to $6,400 at California State University schools. Community college fees are set to rise to $46 per unit by this summer, up from $20 per unit in 2007.
Assembly Speaker John Perez, D-Los Angeles, urged the students in a speech to use social media to spread the word about how much debt they are forced to take on to attend public colleges and universities. Perez and other Democrats support Brown's tax proposal.
"For thousands of students across California, the debt is too much to take on and the bill is too high," he said.
But at one point, the crowd drowned Perez out, chanting "Show us."
Stefano Saltalamacchia, 22, a student at Citrus College in Glendora, near Los Angeles, drew a loud response as he recited a list of programs endangered by budget cuts, including sports, student newspapers and student groups.
"We shouldn't choose any programs to cut ' we should save them all," Saltalamacchia said. He said in an interview that he lost his apartment in August and is working two jobs to scrape by while attending school.
By mid-day, there was one arrest, CHP spokeswoman Fran Clader said. Paul Anthony Jones, 34, was arrested outside the Capitol for being in possession of a switchblade knife, she said.
Many students and other protesters wrote phone numbers for legal assistance on their arms in bright green marker in preparation for a possible arrest. CHP officers could arrest any protesters who refuse to leave the building when it closes at 6 p.m.
The rotunda occupiers broke into small groups to establish a core list of demands to present to lawmakers. Among the proposals were taxing the rich, educating prisoners and funding free textbooks.
Associated Press writer Juliet Williams and photographer Rich Pedroncelli also contributed to this report.