SACRAMENTO — For the first time, long-term bonds carrying big interest costs would be used to pay some of the daily operating expenses of public schools under legislation approved by a key legislative budget committee Wednesday.
The provision to use bond money to finance year-round operations is contained in an $800-million bond measure for public school construction and renovation that was approved, despite some misgivings, on a 15-1 vote by the Assembly Ways and Means Committee.
Specifically, the measure, which lawmakers want to put on the June 7 primary election ballot, earmarks $40 million to help finance year-round school operations. Los Angeles is expected to get most, if not all, of the money.
Several lawmakers said that despite grave concerns about setting a dangerous precedent, they felt compelled to go along with the plan because they have not been able to find another source of the operating funds.
Year-round school has been the subject of extensive debate in the Los Angeles Unified School District, where one-fourth of the district's 592,000 students are on year-round schedules because of overcrowding. Last October, after considerable public outcry, the Los Angeles school board tabled a plan to put all 600 district schools on year-round operation next year. It will reconsider the issue sometime after March 1.
In other actions, the committee also approved bond issues for housing, libraries and higher education facilities, key elements in a $5-billion-plus bond package put together by Gov. George Deukmejian and party leaders in the Senate and Assembly.
When a $776-million parks bond initiative measure and a $510-million veterans housing bond act are added to the total, it means that voters in June and November will be asked to approve $6.1 billion in new borrowing.
Although the committee approved the public schools measure, both Republicans and Democrats expressed alarm at the new policy.
Historically, continuing state expenditures have always been financed on a pay-as-you-go basis with general tax revenues or user fees.
And money to pay for such things as teachers' salaries, insurance and utility bills has never come from bond issues, which usually are restricted to construction or rehabilitation projects. Basically, the state will be borrowing money from investors to pay teachers' salaries, agreeing to repay the money over the next 20 years. Interest costs on the $800-million public schools measure are expected to be $600 million.
One lawmaker predicted that the entire package might be rejected by voters.
'Too Much Debt'
"It's just going to be too much debt," said Assemblyman William P. Baker (R-Danville), vice chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. "The voters are going to start saying no--I hope."
Baker, calling the plan to use bond money to pay for year-round school operations a "bad precedent," said after the committee vote, "I voted for it because it's part of a package. The governor wants something, the Assembly wants something, the Senate wants something, so in order to get the package on the ballot we had to go along."
An Assembly Democratic leader, Speaker Pro Tem Mike Roos of Los Angeles, said he also has serious misgivings, even though he voted for the package and spoke in favor of it during the committee hearing.
"We're going to be politicians who brag about not having raised a dime of tax, that we have made this state work and we have made it flourish," he said. "It is our children who are going to feel the real pain of what we have done today. It's just not the way to operate government."
Roos headed the subcommittee that gave the initial stamp of approval to the bond package.
Hope to Find Money
Baker said he and other legislators will continue holding talks in the hope of finding $40 million to finance the year-round school operations and take at least that provision out of the school bonds measure. Compared to the total $22 billion in state and local revenues used to finance public schools in California, the $40 million represents a relatively small amount, Baker noted.
The Republican lawmaker called it "the camel's nose under the tent," and said he feared what might follow in later years if the precedent is set in 1988.
Lawmakers said the reason for including the $40 million for continuing operations was that the bond issue also contains $40 million to purchase air-conditioning equipment so that schools going to a year-round schedule can stay open during hot summer months. It would not make sense, the lawmakers argued, to buy the air conditioners if no money is made available to operate schools during the summer.
Agrees to Amendment
As a concession to critics, state Sen. Marian Bergeson (R-Newport Beach), who is carrying the legislation, agreed to add an amendment to the measure to say that the money for daily operations would be a one-time-only incentive to school districts to encourage them to go to year-round operations.
She said she is confident that general fund money will eventually become available to cover these operating expenses, but other legislators questioned that assumption.
The committee will vote later on two of the biggest pieces of the bond package, a $1-billion transportation bond measure and an $835-million bond issue to finance new prison construction.