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The Numbers Game

A guide to sorting through the phalanx of state propositions

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.

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Election Selections: The North Bay Bohemian Cheat Sheet

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Proposition 46

Housing and Emergency Shelter Trust Fund Act of 2002

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.

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.

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.

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. Farmworkers also benefit from this measure--$200 million in funds are allocated to low-interest loans and grants for construction of farmworker housing.

Recommendation: Yes on Prop. 46

Proposition 47

Kindergarten-University Public Education Facilities Bond Act of 2002

One in three students in the state attends 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. More than 300 new schools and as many as 46,000 new classrooms will be needed.

Ambitious action is needed, 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. 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. 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.

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 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.

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

Recommendation: Yes on Prop. 47

Proposition 48

Court Consolidation

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?

Recommendation: Yes on Prop. 48

Proposition 49

Before and After School Programs

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 3pm and 6pm.

The initiative would require the state to spend more from its General Fund--up to $550 million--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.

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 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.

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

Recommendation: No on Prop. 49

Proposition 50

Water Quality, Supply, and Safe Drinking Water Projects, Coastal Wetlands Purchase and Protection

Water is 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.

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 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 systems upgrades, 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 bags of water 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.

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. This issue is worth spending some of that precious budget on.

Recommendation: Yes on Prop. 50

Proposition 51

Distribution of Existing Motor Vehicle Sales and Use Tax

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. 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.

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. Hence the inclusion of a $75 million dollar project that would provide rail services to USC, the campaign's biggest donator at $300,000.

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.

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.

Recommendation: No on Prop. 51

Propostion 52

Election Day Voter Registration

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. Opponents, mostly Republicans who typically thrive when voting day turnouts are low, say allowing election-day voter registration is a prescription for widespread fraud.

This concern 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. The measure's proponents, which include the president of the California League of Women Voters, Common Cause, the ACLU, law-enforcement, and labor groups, 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. Unfortunately, though, there is nothing in Prop. 52 that will give voters better candidates to choose from.

Recommendation: Yes on Prop. 52

Local Yokels

What are the issues facing Sonoma County voters in this year's election?

Voters will go to the polls on Nov. 5 impotent. Sure, they will cast their votes reflecting their ideas on urban growth, infrastructure planning, and public safety--and those votes are important--but voters will be limp at the voting booth in respect to the biggest nonelection issue in an election for a while. The war on Iraq, that is.

So we continue to go on marches and write letters against the action. Locally, we content ourselves with trying to get something done in Sonoma County about sprawl, traffic, and environmental decay.

In Petaluma, it's all about the potholes. Don't get us wrong, Petaluma's plethora of potholes isn't the biggest problem facing Sonoma County's second-largest city. But they are symptomatic of the mismanagement and neglect that has crept into the city council on Mayor Clark Thompson's watch. That's not to say Thompson is responsible for all of the city's woes. But he must bear some fault for the entropy that has marred the council chambers during the past couple of years.

In Sebastopol, with the Laguna Vista controversy steaming in the background as developers consider whether or not to revise the plan and resubmit it, voters can choose from four candidates for three seats on the council. The only nonincumbent, Planning Commissioner Linda Kelley, has made affordable housing part of her platform, and exemplified the duality of the Laguna Vista proposal by first coming out in favor of it, then scaling back her endorsement in favor of more affordable housing and a different location.

Windsor faces a difficult decision on growth--curbing growth is important, but Measure X is not the right way to do it. Sonoma proposes paying its councilmembers something instead of nothing, and Santa Rosa wants to up members' allowances, providing more of a chance for people to serve their city. Below, find our selective list of endorsements for the 2002 November elections. Get out and vote.

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From the October 31-November 6, 2002 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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