Calif. To Decide Next Week on Fate Of $3 Billion in Construction Bonds

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California school groups and their supporters are putting up $1.3 million to make sure that election history doesn't repeat itself.

Two years after voters rejected a statewide school-construction ballot initiative for the first time, Californians will decide next week whether the state can sell $3 billion in bonds for construction and repair of the education infrastructure. More than $2 billion of the proceeds would be targeted for K-12 schools.

California lawmakers generally put school-construction bond issues on the ballot every two years, and the measures usually pass with broad support. The four initiatives on the ballot from 1984 through 1988 each collected at least 60 percent of the vote.

Polls this year indicate that up to 70 percent of the voters back the bond issue, but school officials say the 1994 defeat means they can't rest easy. The campaign for the earlier bond issue spent only about $100,000, and the referendum lost by roughly 35,000 votes of the 4.2 million cast.

"That jumped up and bit us," said Dennis Meyers, a lobbyist for the Association of California School Administrators. "We got burned on that."

"After so many easy wins, we got lazy," said Laura Walker, a lobbyist for the California School Boards Association.

Television Ad Blitz

This year, for the first time, the construction bonds for K-12 schools and higher education were combined, a move school and university officials advocated to allow them to pool their resources for one campaign.

The coalition backing the bond issue includes groups representing businesses, labor unions, senior citizens, and children's advocates.

Last week, the coalition was scheduled to air its first television commercials. Organizers expect to spend more than $1 million on the ad campaign to convince voters that the schools and universities desperately need to rebuild.

The state finance department has estimated that California's K-12 schools will have to spend $17.4 billion in the next decade on construction and repair.

More than half of the state's schools were built more than 30 years ago, and 140,000 new students enter the system each year.

Influential taxpayers' groups have backed the bond issue or have pledged to remain neutral, school officials said.

"The only organized opposition is the unorganized no vote," he said. "And that's what we have to overcome."

The March 26 ballot will include the presidential primary candidates. Should Republican front-runner Bob Dole have locked up his party's nomination by then as expected, school officials hope that anti-government Republican voters might be less likely to turn out.

Support for the bond issue, which will appear on the ballot as Proposition 200, could be damaged by a campaign against three tort-reform proposals, which are numbered 201, 202, and 203.

Television ads warning voters against the "terrible 200s" are running everywhere, Ms. Walker said.

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