Calif. Says No To Laxer Rules for Bond Votes

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Voters in California rejected a measure last week designed to make it easier for districts to win financing to build and repair schools, despite the efforts of a coalition of education and business groups that had promoted the plan with a $22 million campaign.

Proposition 26 failed by a slim margin even as the state's voters approved $4.6 billion worth of state bonds for parks, libraries, and improved water quality. The measure would have lowered the share of votes needed to pass local bonds for school construction from a two-thirds majority—as is currently mandated by a 121-year-old clause in the state constitution—to a simple majority.

Opponents of the plan hailed its defeat as a victory for fiscal accountability, while proponents called the loss disappointing. But supporters said they were consoled by the narrow margin; out of 6.5 million voters, 48.8 percent cast ballots in favor of the plan.

"The silver lining is that it was close," said Donna L. Lucas, a spokeswoman for the Let's Fix Our Schools initiative, which was supported by the California Teachers Association and the California Chamber of Commerce, as well as other leading groups. "A lot of kids are going to continue going to school in trailers, but now the awareness level is very high."

Education groups did cheer voters' resounding defeat of a ballot proposal that would have repealed a 50-cent tax on tobacco products that is used to pay for early-childhood-education programs and anti-smoking initiatives. The state teachers' unions, which are major donors to California political campaigns, also expressed relief that 65.2 percent of voters rejected a proposal to cap campaign contributions by individual and organizations. A measure to strengthen penalties against juvenile felons, meanwhile, passed with 62 percent of the vote.

Bar Stays High

Groups opposed to Proposition 26 said they were relieved to have prevailed even though they were heavily outspent. The opposition campaign—led by a citizen's group known as the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association and the state Libertarian Party—spent $1.4 million to fight the measure, compared with the $22 million spent by the pro-Proposition 26 forces.

"Voters obviously want to keep the bar high enough to force school officials to come out and talk about why they need a bond," said Kris Vosburgh, the executive director of the taxpayers' association. "Proposition 26 would have essentially provided officials with a credit card that had no limit."

Only 6 percent of the 776 local school bond elections held in California since 1986 were voted down by a majority of voters. Forty percent of such measures garnered support from more than half the voters, but fell short of the supermajority requirement. Three other states—Idaho, Missouri, and New Hampshire—also require a two-thirds vote for local bonds. ("California Voters Weigh Making Facilities Bonds Easier To Pass," March 1, 2000). Many observers attribute the failure of Proposition 26 to various external factors, including the high turnout of Republican voters—generally skeptics on government spending—who were drawn by the well-publicized primary contest between GOP presidential candidates George W. Bush and John McCain.

Secretary of State Bill Jones' office reported that 54 percent of registered Republicans voted in the March 7 election, compared with 44 percent in the primary election in 1996. The turnout among registered Democrats, meanwhile, rose only slightly—from 46.4 percent in 1996 to 48 percent this year.

Proposition 26 supporters also said the measure was hurt by its low placement on the ballot—it was listed as the 15th of 20 proposals—and by a summary of the bill they called confusing. The Legislative Analyst's Office, a nonpartisan office under the state legislature, prepares the language that summarizes all ballot proposals.

"When people are confused, they vote no," Ms. Lucas said.

Scrambling for Funds

At the local level, district officials who have already tried and failed to meet the state's two-thirds voting requirement for school say they will have to seek out other funding sources to pay for fixing or augmenting their crowded and dilapidated facilities.

The 20,000-student Alhambra City School District near Los Angeles will likely look to tap into the $1 billion in hardship funds the state has reserved for districts unable to pass local school bonds, Superintendent Myrna L. Rivera said last week. The district has tried twice in less than a year to pass a $42 million bond to modernize several schools, both times garnering support from a majority of voters but not a two-thirds majority.

Meanwhile, students will continue to attend classes at Mark Keppel High School, a 60-year-old facility with crumbling ceiling tiles and an out-of-date infrastructure, Ms. Rivera said.

"We're trying to let the kids know we're looking at every way we can to fix the facility, and that we understand that it's difficult to learn," she said.

Charter school advocates also lamented the outcome of the vote. Had it passed, Proposition 26 would have required that districts give charter schools the same access to school facilities that regular public schools enjoy. Currently, many districts do not provide space for start-up charter schools, forcing the largely independent public schools to pay for facilities out of their operating funds, said David Patterson, the director of governmental relations for the California Network of Educational Charters.

"It's a major challenge for charter schools to provide an equal or better education when they're working with fewer dollars," Mr. Patterson said.

Tobacco Tax Survives

On another measure closely watched by educators, the proposal to repeal a 50-cent state tax on tobacco products that is used to support services for young children earned just 29 percent of the vote.

Proposition 28, sponsored by Ned Roscoe, the president of a retail business called Cigarettes Cheaper, would have repealed Proposition 10, an initiative championed by the actor-director Rob Reiner in 1998. Proposition 10 created the California Children and Families Commission, as well as commissions in each county, to oversee programs financed by the tax. The tax is projected to bring in close to $700 million a year. ("Legal, Academic Challenges Hover As Calif. Counts Prop. 10 Dollars," Nov. 17, 1999.)

Opponents of Proposition 10 argue it created unneeded bureaucracy, and that the tax unfairly targets smokers. While Philip Morris, the giant tobacco company, spent millions to fight Proposition 10, it did not provide funding to push Proposition 28.

Jane Henderson, the executive director of the state commission, said that before the election, some counties were hesitant to put a lot of effort into their plans.

But now, she said, "I think everyone is going to breathe a sigh of relief and move ahead."

Assistant Editor Linda Jacobson also contributed to this report.

Vol. 19, Issue 27, Pages 1, 32-33

Published in Print: March 15, 2000, as Calif. Says No To Laxer Rules for Bond Votes
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