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[whitespace] The Numbers Game

A guide to sorting through the phalanx of state propositions

HARD-WORKING, dedicated, principled elected officials, keeping the public's best interest foremost in their minds, are busy fashioning sensible budgets on time and taking care of the needs of the citizenry--OK, story-hour is over, children. We live in California, where the budget process moves slower than a glacier.

On the other hand, one of the citizens' best weapons against an unresponsive political system has been hijacked by organized interest groups with the money to turn self-interested agendas into the law of the land using paid signature-gatherers and media-savvy political consultants. This explains why we're always wading through a slough of muddy prose at election time. Sometimes, these propositions take care of much-needed business--raising bond money for essentials like affordable housing and maintaining a clean water supply.

The taint of special interest corruption can be sniffed in the morning air--and like the napalm of Apocalypse Now, it might smell like victory. Consider Prop. 51, for instance, which took a basically good idea--throwing money at transportation problems--and financed it by nakedly rolling out the pork barrels for free-spending backers. And we thought that's what politicians were for.

This November's proposition slate is actually rather tame compared to some years, for which we can be thankful. We're recommending more yes votes than no votes. Our reasons, in summary, follow.

Proposition 46

Housing and Emergency Shelter Trust Fund Act of 2002
Recommendation: Yes on Prop. 46

The recent economic downturn has pushed median housing prices higher, as investors shift money from stocks to real estate. At the same time, the average wage earner in California has either lost wages or remained static--thereby being priced out of the market.

Prop. 46 is one of those troublesome bond measures that cause a furor every election season--but the crocodile tears in Sacramento over California's budget crisis are drowned out by the clear and present good that Prop. 46 will do. The bonds--which will be paid back out of General Fund revenues--direct the money to programs that will provide housing for senior citizens and the mentally ill, shelters for battered women and the homeless, and housing for farmworkers.

While Prop. 46 is likely to make California a less beautiful state--low-income housing generally is of the cookie-cutter variety now endemic to most urban areas--it puts the money in the right places. More than $1 billion will be targeted at constructing multifamily homes (i.e., apartment buildings) with priority to projects in already-developed areas. By favoring high-density projects in urban areas close to transportation and resources, the bond measure encourages smart growth--a key concept in the future of California development.

In exchange for low-interest loans, developers will be required to reserve a portion of their units as affordable housing. This portion of the measure includes supporting projects that provide health and social services to low-income renters, as well as projects that will create affordable housing for students and the disabled.

Since only 29 percent of Californians can afford to buy a house, the measure benefits middle-income buyers, too. An allocation of $405 million goes to home ownership programs that provide low-interest loans or grants to buyers, especially first-time buyers. Encouraging homeownership benefits both Californians and California. Construction of housing is expected to create 276,000 jobs and bring in $13 billion in private investment.

Farmworkers also benefit from this measure--$200 million in funds are allocated to low-interest loans and grants for construction of farmworker housing (with preference given to those that also provide health services) and for projects that serve migrant workers.

The housing crisis affects anyone seeking a bed, including battered women and children. Prop. 46 puts $195 million toward grants for the construction of homeless shelters, alleviating the need for emergency housing.

Proposition 47

Kindergarten-University Public Education Facilities Bond Act of 2002
Recommendation: Yes on Prop. 47

One in three students in the state attend a school that is overcrowded or needs fixing --or, too often, both. The problem is only getting worse. More than 1 million new students are going to need seats in the state's K-12 schools by 2007, on top of the 6.1 million pupils already here. More than 300 new schools and as many as 46,000 new classrooms will be needed.

Ambitious action is needed to bring California school facilities up to grade, and it comes in the form of Prop. 47--the largest bond measure in California's history. Prop. 47 would raise $13.05 billion for building new schools and for repairing and modernizing old ones for all grade levels, from kindergarten through graduate school. Of that, $1.65 billion will help repair and upgrade California's public colleges and universities with the bulk of the money going to elementary and secondary schools.

In the form of payments from the General Fund, it will cost taxpayers an estimated $873 million annually for the next 30 years. And it will only partially solve the problem. Prop. 47 is part of a much-needed plan for ongoing investment. The last statewide school bond measure, passed in 1998, raised $9.2 billion. In 2004, voters will be asked to approve a $12 billion bond measure to build the remaining classrooms.

These sums are large, but so are the needs. For the past two decades, voters repeatedly approved bond measures to build dozens of prisons. Let's now make an even greater investment in our schools. California hasn't embarked on a huge effort to expand its schools since the 1950s and 1960s. We have now reached a similar critical point. The state's extraordinary growth has made us the greatest economical and political power in the nation while putting our schools under tremendous pressures.

Opponents of the school bond argue that the state can't afford to take on the added debt, but that argument doesn't stand up under scrutiny. Debt payments as a percentage of state General Fund revenues are lower than they were just a few years ago and well under 5 percent, a widely accepted measure of a reasonable level of state indebtedness. Basically, that means that there's room for more borrowing without jeopardizing California's standing in bond markets. And interest rates are lower than they've been in years, making this a sensible time for the investment.

Californians have no choice but to invest in maintaining and expanding our school system. Our future depends on an educated populace.

Proposition 48

Court Consolidation
Recommendation: Yes on Prop. 48

A case could be made that this proposition is all about letting go. In 1998, California voters approved Prop. 220, which allowed counties to make the penny-wise decision of consolidating the municipal courts with the superior court system. And in the four years since, all 58 counties in the state have gone for so-called "unification" making the municipal court system extinct in the Golden State.

Supporters say they want Prop. 48 passed merely to "prune dead wood" from the California Constitution. Opponents (led by the Voter Information Alliance) are worried that if we excise all references to muni courts in the constitution, they can never, ever come back. And what if a county at some point wanted to resurrect its muni courts? Well, not to rain on anyone's parade, but we think that's not very likely. Sure, there are cycles to these trends, but unification of muni and superior courts has netted visible results. Saving the words "municipal court" in the constitution is like saving gum wrappers for the day those chains from the '60s come back in style. Who needs the clutter?

Proposition 49

Before and After School Programs
Recommendation: No on Prop. 49

County Sheriff Laurie Smith and actor Arnold Schwarzenegger make an energetic pro-Prop. 49 duo. They both plead for a dedicated funding source to help kids stay out of trouble between the anarchic hours of 3 and 6pm. "I think after-school programs are just that important," Smith says about earmarking money for programs meant to keep kids away from drugs, gangs, jail and bad grades.

The initiative would require the state to spend more from its General Fund--up to $550 million, about $455 million above current spending--on the After School Education and Safety Program, starting in the 2004-2005 fiscal year. It would cement a permanent yearly spending level that circumvents future action by the Legislature. (State electeds could increase but not decrease the amount.) Religious organizations and charter schools get to compete with public schools for those funds.

The sheriff's and the actor's pro-kid stance is on-track; it's a good idea to keep youngsters busy and away from crack. But the initiative would make flawed public policy. Trudy Schafer, program director for the quite reasonable League of Women Voters of California, points out, "It ties the hands of people making the budget year after year." It also prioritizes one resource among the many that kids need.

If there's one thing we should have learned from this year's budget, it's that dollars are valuable and elusive, and will stay that way until the country gets new leadership, a new economy or both. Hence San Jose Federation of Teachers President Forrest Nixon's concern, should Prop. 49 pass: "In the budget crunch, you're denying children health care, which could be even more crucial [than Arnie's after- and before-school programs], and you have a situation where legislators ... are powerless to adjust [the funding]."

In a nutshell, schools would like to make their own decisions about how their precious dollars are spent, thank you. We have to agree. The state, with its requirements and restrictions, has been more than helpful already.

Proposition 50

Water Quality, Supply and Safe Drinking Water Projects, Coastal Wetlands Purchase and Protection
Recommendation: Yes on Prop. 50

Water is one of our most precious commodities and one of the most endangered resources in California. The disparity between north and south has grown as development has boomed, and resources are stretched to the limit. A federal court order requiring that California reduce its reliance on Colorado River water exacerbates the shortage that the state faces.

The $3.44 billion bond, written by environmentalists, allocates a large part of its funds to coastal protection ($950 million), including wetlands acquisition and restoration, and to the CalFed Bay-Delta program ($825 million), which channels funds to the improvement of the San Francisco Bay/Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Estuary. The CalFed program was started in 1994 in order to restore the native fish of the delta and to make it a more reliable source of water for Southern California. It is almost out of funds, and Prop. 50 would lengthen its life span. The rest of the money is allocated to a wide range of programs, including upgrades for community drinking-water systems, flood management, contaminant removal and pollution prevention.

Californians have long supported pro-environment bond measures, and this one should be no different. Unlike more creative and less viable options, like towing huge bags full of water from the Albion and Gualala rivers to San Diego for private profit, Prop. 50 funds new sources of water through conservation, desalination, recycling and reclamation, and building infrastructure.

Infrastructure doesn't mean reservoirs and water storage, which is what the farmworkers take issue with on this bond measure. The money will largely be funneled to coastal resources rather than to the Central Valley, but desalination programs and recycling will go some distance to alleviate Central Valley water shortages. Money is also allocated for studies and environmental reviews of water-storage options--meaning that another bond measure could show up a few years down the line for water solutions in the valley.

Fiscal conservatives bemoan the debt that bond measures incur, as well-meaning Californians keep hitting the yes button in their polling places. There have been three bond measures for water projects passed since 1996. The money, however, has run out--as money tends to do--and Prop. 50 continues the effort and includes more long-term solutions. There will always be reasons to spend money, some more worthy than others. Water is one of the most pressing needs in California and worth spending some of that precious budget on.

Proposition 51

Distribution of Existing Motor Vehicle Sales and Use Tax
Recommendation: No on Prop. 51

With Prop. 51, you're damned if you do and damned if you don't. A "yes" would transfer 30 percent of the state's sales-tax receipts on used and new vehicles into a new fund for primarily transportation-related projects, but a high percentage of the money would be used to reward special interest groups for their support. A "no" perpetuates the state's funding shortfalls for easing traffic congestion, improving the school bus fleet and building more bike paths and walkways. Both prospects are dastardly, but the special-interest factor is the worse of the two.

First, none of Prop. 51's listed projects is considered an official priority by the state. This undermines the state and local agencies that have invested countless hours in identifying the most pressing transportation problems and analyzing the best ways to solve them. Experts have testified that the measure could shift nearly $1 billion from the General Fund next year, forcing lawmakers to cut spending on public safety, health care and other services.

The Planning and Conservation League--the Sacramento-based environmental group that sponsored Prop. 51--acknowledged that many projects were selected with an eye toward getting contributions that would pay for the campaign to pass the initiative. Hence the inclusion of a $75 million dollar project that would provide rail services to USC, the campaign's biggest donator at $300,000. The list goes on.

Hillwood Development LLC, a Texas company owned by Ross Perot Jr., is trying to develop an industrial site in San Bernardino and donated $120,000 to the initiative. Prop. 51 earmarks $30 million over four years to separate railways and roads leading to the company's property. The proposition would fund a $120 million rail line that ends in Indio, near an Indian casino that donated about a quarter-million dollars to support the cause. A south Orange County retirement community called Leisure World would receive a $2 million golf-cart path to reward its contribution.

Supporters call the initiative a "Traffic Congestion Relief and Safe School Bus Trust Fund," but their propaganda is misleading. The prop's funds have also been earmarked to provide $1.5 million a year for the Oakland School for the Arts, a pet project of Mayor Jerry Brown. Brown has come under fire for using his political connections to have the charter school tacked on to the list of the proposition's recipients.

This measure only furthers the dirty notion of special-interest payback politics. The state should do more to improve transportation, but Prop. 51 is not the answer.

Proposition 52

Election Day Voter Registration
Recommendation: Yes on Prop. 52

So it's voting day and an alcoholic former frat boy is about to get elected. Frightened masses show up at their polling places only to find out they can't vote because they forgot to reregister the last time they moved or because they just turned 18. Prop. 52 would let voters take action then and there, by registering right at the polling place moments before they drop their choices into the ballot box. Opponents, mostly Republicans who typically thrive when voting day turnouts are low, say allowing election day voter registration is a prescription for widespread fraud because polling officials would have no way of knowing if people really are who they say they are or really live where they claim they do. Those concerns might be worth paying attention to, particularly considering the GOP's proven track record of stealing elections. Yet Prop. 52 will actually increase protections against fraud because it will require voters to show a California driver's license or two other valid forms of ID when they register at the polls, something they don't have to do under the current voter registration scheme. (What's more, it'll double penalties for voting illegally and make conspiracy to commit voter fraud a felony.) We're also persuaded by the measure's proponents, which include the president of the California League of Women Voters, Common Cause, the ACLU, election officials, law enforcement and labor groups, who point out that the six states with same-day election registration lead the nation in voter turnout. Currently a pitiful 49 percent of eligible voters vote in the United States; the March primary election had the lowest voter turnout since 1924. Studies suggest that voting day registration could spike voter turnout in our fair state by as much as 9 percent, which translates into 1 million more voters. Unfortunately, though, there is nothing in Prop. 52 that will give voters better candidates to choose from.

Allie Gottlieb, Loren Stein, Corrinne Asturias, Davina Baum, Rebecca Patt and Michael S. Gant contributed to this article.

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From the October 30-November 6, 2002 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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