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Commentary | COLUMN RIGHT / JOEL FOX

Two-Thirds Vote for School Bonds Is Fair

L.A. managed to pass the largest bond issue in U.S. history under the current rules.

January 06, 1998|JOEL FOX | Joel Fox is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn

As the California Legislature begins its session, the No. 1 issue on its agenda is a constitutional amendment to change the vote requirement to pass local school bonds from a two-thirds vote to majority. Gov. Pete Wilson has made this change part of a state and local bond package that would add $16 billion for school construction over the next six years.

Enabling legislation by Sen. Jack O'Connell (D-Santa Barbara) has passed the Senate, and the push is on in the Assembly to qualify the measure for the June ballot.

As this sneaky measure is written, if voters reject the proposal in June, it automatically will return on the November ballot without further consideration by the Legislature. The legislators seem to be saying to the voters: Keep voting till you get it right.

The fight over reducing the two-thirds votes for local bonds is not new. The two-thirds requirement has been part of the California Constitution since 1879. Twice during the past generation, amendments to lower the two-thirds vote requirement have made it to the ballot. In 1966 and again in the special election of 1993, these measures were defeated, in the latter election by nearly 70%.

Still, the two-thirds vote requirement is constantly challenged. Critics point out that school populations are dramatically rising, so local school bonds need to be easier to pass. They ask why the local vote requirement for school bonds is not the same as the majority vote that the state requires to pass bonds to build schools.

The two-thirds vote on local general obligation bonds did not hinder the phenomenal growth of this state over the past century. And the increase in school population was greater, in both percentage and numbers, in the baby boom years of the 1950s and '60s than during the '90s.

Local and state general obligation bonds have different vote requirements for passage, with good reason. State bonds are backed by the general fund into which all taxpayers contribute. Local bonds are supported exclusively by property taxpayers, whose properties are collateral to guarantee repayment. More important, a vote for a local bond is also a vote for a property tax increase. In voting for a state bond, there is no direct tax increase.

Bond taxes can't be voted away once passed. The obligation must be paid, and that takes decades. Or as Groucho Marx said in trying to woo Margaret Dumont one of those many times: "There are many bonds that will hold us together through eternity. What are they? Your government bonds, of course."

Even the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized the rightness of requiring special protection for taxpayers on long-term bond commitments. In a 1971 West Virginia case, Gordon vs. Lance, the court declared: "In voting to issue bonds, voters are committing, in part, the credit of infants and of generations yet unborn, and some restriction on such commitment is not an unreasonable demand."

It is not impossible, as some have claimed, to achieve a two-thirds vote for school bonds. Over the last decade, 50% of the local school bonds in California have passed with two-thirds votes. Compare that to the decade prior to Proposition 13, when only 30% of the school bonds were successful. The increase in the success rate may be attributed to Proposition 13's protections. Since taxpayers no longer fear being blindsided with additional property taxes, they have been more generous at the polls in passing school bonds.

Even more compelling, many school districts that continue to pursue bond issues succeed even if their first attempts at securing the two-thirds votes fail. Over the past decade, 70% of school districts that tried to pass general obligation bonds were ultimately successful.

Those who acknowledge that some school bonds have passed usually add the caveat that the bonds could pass only in smaller, homogeneous districts. Tell that to the Los Angeles Unified School District, which just passed the largest local school bond in U.S. history, $2.4 billion, in one of the country's most diversified cities.

Since 1993, local bond revenue for school repair and construction is four times higher than the amount passed in state bonds over that time. This more than surpasses the governor's goal of having local jurisdictions match state revenues for school construction.

The two-thirds vote for local general obligation bonds is a vital taxpayer protection that has served the interests of both the public and the schools. It must be preserved.

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