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Calif. Lawmakers Approve $1.9-Billion School-Bond Vote

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After dropping a pair of controversial proposals aimed at making it easier for school districts to raise funds locally, the California legislature last week approved a $1.9-billion school-bond issue on the state's June 2 ballot.

If the measure is rejected by state voters in June, the bill approved last week provides that the $1.9-billion measure will reappear on the November ballot.

A spokesman for Gov. Pete Wilson said last week that he would sign the bill.

A separate bill passed by the Assembly, which was pending in the Senate last week, calls for another $900-million ballot measure for school construction if the June measure passes.

To ease the way for the bond issue, legislative leaders decided to hold off further attempts to pass a constitutional amendment allowing local school-tax increases to be approved by a simple majority of voters. Under California's landmark Proposition 13 tax-limitation amendment, proposed tax hikes now require a two-thirds majority.

Another casualty was an effort by some lawmakers to make the proposed bond measure include language providing that, if the bond issue was defeated, caps on the developer fees school districts can impose would be removed.

Both of those options, however, were dropped last week as the deadline for passing ballot measures loomed and officials were anxious to make sure the school-bond issue was put before voters.

$5 Billion Needed

While school lobbyists expressed satisfaction that lawmakers had approved the bill, they also noted that it would cover only a fraction of the state's school-building needs, which are estimated at more than $5 billion and projected to rise to $16 billion within five years.

Observers said that while the victory margins for statewide school-bond measures have dropped in recent years, voters will be receptive to the latest measure.

"We're taking it seriously, but we believe the voters still think that schools are important,'' said Dennis Meyers, a lobbyist for the Association of California School Administrators. "Even though there is concern about the economy and our bond rating, we think people will still come through.''

One reason for school officials' optimism is that the legislature's actions last week will leave the school-bond measure and a similar $900-million bond measure for higher-education building projects as the only propositions on the statewide ballot.

Observers said that, if the bond plan had been paired with the proposed constitutional amendment, or if the issue of developer fees had been involved, voters might have been more easily persuaded to vote against everything.

Proposition 13 Changes Sought

Officials expect that the constitutional amendment may rise again following the June vote.

The amendment was approved 46 to 29 in the Assembly last week, which was 8 votes shy of the needed two-thirds majority.

The amendment, endorsed by Governor Wilson, would free school districts from the provisions of Proposition 13, which requires two-thirds approval from local voters before property taxes can be increased.

Because the threshold has been hard for school districts to reach, proposed construction projects have gone unfunded. That has created the state's backlog and forced school administrators to explore a number of funding alternatives, including developer fees. (See Education Week, Feb. 19, 1992.)

Despite the pressure to seek new funding sources, however, officials last week continued to argue that raising fees on new development was a bad idea.

"You can't unfairly burden new homeowners to pay for the schools,'' said Bill Livingstone, Mr. Wilson's spokesman, noting that the increased fees could raise home prices by upward of $10,000. "Schools are the responsibility of the whole community.''

Observers said they expect the legislature will address the issue of schools' ability to leverage increased local funding later this year.

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