Local (California) Politics

Well, I received my copy of the official summary of ballot measures for the upcoming statewide election (March 2nd – those of you in the state, make sure you’re registered!) and read through them. And much to my surprise, I may end up voting a somewhat different pattern than usual. Here are my current thoughts on all four upcoming statewide measures; I’m splitting them into two posts because of length.

(Incidentally, this was far and away the most technically complex summary of ballot measures I’ve ever seen. Several of these measures are subtle and involve several layers. The below is a general discussion only, not an attempt to go into the details of any one of them)

  1. Proposition 55 ($12.3b bond measure for schools, primarily construction thereof) I normally support more or less every education bond measure. It’s clearly one of the soundest investments a state can make in itself, and California clearly needs it more than most states. But this one, I’m afraid, I’m going to have to vote against. It’s dealing with an extraordinary amount of money (consider that the giant bond measure to try to stabilize the entire state economy is $15b) and contains what I can only describe as very fuzzy plans to repay it. The money is preallocated almost entirely to school construction. While we definitely need new schools, I notice there isn’t guaranteed conjoint money to hire teachers. The allocation plan between districts is similarly murky; the definition for “need” seems decidedly vague.

    Most of all, this seems like bad fiscal policy. A bond measure this large without a clear repayment plan is going to lead to much worse financial trouble down the road, especially if it leads to a downgrading in the state’s bond status (which is a risk). That trouble would almost certainly fall on the schools, and far more severely than the current situation, and would very likely leave us with things like half-constructed schools or schools constructed but unstaffed. I don’t see any reason why any of the needs of the schools are best served by a single, behemoth bond measure and not a number of smaller local bond measures, each tailored to the needs of its district. The only real advantage to a statewide measure is large-scale redistribution of resources, and given the allocation policies in this bill, it’s not even clear if that would happen.

    I recommend voting against this bill.

  2. Proposition 56 (Various complicated reforms of the budget process, #1) While the discussions of this bill talk a lot about how it will withhold salaries from the State Assembly until a budget is passed, that’s really somewhat of a red herring. The real meat of this measure is twofold: (1) Reducing the proportion of votes needed to pass a budget or change tax laws from two-thirds to 55% and (2) requiring that 25% of any annual budget surplus be redirected to a special fund which could be drawn upon in case of deficit, unless that special fund is already 5% of the previous year’s budget or more.

    Part 1: The real point of this is to weaken the effects of Proposition 13, and for that reason alone I think this is a good idea. Prop 13 was passed a few decades ago, making it more or less impossible for the state to directly raise taxes. It’s had two primary effects: Forcing frequent bond measures (the only way the state can raise money, in essence) and, much more seriously, putting California in a situation where it derives most of its money from income taxes rather than wealth taxes. (e.g. property taxes) (The ratio of the two is one of the highest in the US, by quite a bit) The reason this is a problem is that income taxes fluctuate wildly from year to year, whereas wealth taxes stay steady; this means that there’s a lot of money in good years, and very little when things go bad, which tends to be precisely when we could really use some more money around.

    Part 2: This is a pretty straightforward budget-stabilization measure, and it seems to do more or less what it claims. Given our reliance on income taxes, it should help level things off, but given that it only triggers in the event of having more money than is required “to maintain the current levels of General Fund expenditure” (i.e., having a surplus) it’s not likely to go off in the immediate future. (But see Prop 58, below)

    The rest of this measure, while it sounds interesting, is basically window-dressing and not likely to do much. On the whole, I think this is reasonable policy, and in particular anything that weakens Prop 13 is good for the state. I recommend voting for this measure.

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Published in: on February 5, 2004 at 00:54  Comments (4)  
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4 Comments

  1. The League of Women Voters (ca.lwv.org), whose opinion I respect immensely, agrees with you on 56, but not on 55. While I’m not sure how I’m going to vote on 55 yet – I agree with a lot of what you said – there are a couple of points that LWV raises about it that I think are worth noting:
    1) Prop 55 isn’t just for building new schools, but for renovations of old ones that are in critical need for fire and earthquake safety improvements. I 100% agree with you that new schools are sort of silly if we’re not going to hire new teachers, but right now a disturbing percentage of students are studying in schools that are downright dangerous.
    2) About hiring new teachers…schools take time to build. I think that this bill, or something very much like it, will ultimately be very much necessary towards getting smaller class sizes, because they simply can’t hire new teachers until they have new places for classes. Apparently, a few years ago, they started actually teaching multiple classes in one room at my middle school, which is in a predominantly white, upper-middle-class area of SoCal. They managed to pass a local bond measure to build a new school, but we had the money in my neighborhood to pay for it – something which is not true in the parts of California where overcrowding is the worst.
    Like I said, I haven’t decided, but I’d recommend reading LWV’s opinion, just at least to know what the counterarguments are…their opinion on Prop 55 is here, and on Prop 56 here. They also have an analysis of the financial issues behind 55 here, which is I think at the very least interesting, and possibly helpful.
    By the way, to anyone reading this who doesn’t know who the League of Women Voters is, their main website is here.

  2. Only thing I can say in favor of the big huge state education bond…
    I grew up in a town where local bonds never passed. Extreme overcrowding in schools, desperate need for new facilities, and the bonds to build them always got between 55% and (painfully) 65%. Not enough to pass under prop 13 limits. So, they’d cram more trailers on to the athletic fields, and teach classes out there.
    Yes, local bonds will do a better job — but they don’t pass in the conservative parts of the state. And it takes state funds to get anything done.
    I remember the year that the everpresent school bond got 65%, some of the swing votes which kept it from passing (given that the margin it lost by was around 150 votes) were convinced to vote against it by a local talk radio personality. His argument: “Don’t give money to schools that refuse to enforce the will of the people as expressed in Prop. 187. If they kicked out the illegal aliens, they’d have plenty of money.”
    Of course, a) the courts forbade them from enforcing Prop. 187 if they wanted to and b) Chico had, by all estimates, at most a couple dozen students who would have been affected by Prop. 187, and the bureaucracy to deal with them would have been more expensive than the savings.
    Not that I’m saying you should vote for a bloated and vague bond. But remember that most of the state does not share the values and outlook of the Bay Area.

  3. Well, that’s certainly another good reason to try to thwart Prop 13. 🙂
    But I do agree with you on school bond measures in general, and I normally support them – it’s just this one in particular that I’m concerned about. Mostly because it’s a single giant sum without very clear plans about how to use it or pay it back. A handful of $3-5b measures would probably do the job much better.

  4. Thanks for the links! The financial analysis was particularly interesting.
    Like I said in another comment, I do support the idea behind this bill – I’m just leery of very long-term, large-ticket single bonds. What I’d like to see is a few $4b (or so), 4 or 5-year measures, one every few years, so that some could go for construction, others for hiring and retention, and so on to match changing needs.


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