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Senate OKs School Bond Issue for Ballot

Education: Bill to put record $9.2-billion measure to statewide vote in June faces GOP opposition in Assembly. Approval deadline is Monday.

March 04, 1998|CARL INGRAM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — Ending a daylong stalemate, the state Senate on Tuesday narrowly approved a record $9.2-billion school bond issue for the June ballot. The proposal now goes to the Assembly, where it faces an uncertain fate.

For six hours, the Democratic-supported bill--for the biggest school bond in state history--stalled two votes short of the 27 required for passage. A second vote was postponed until late afternoon to allow for the arrival of 76-year-old GOP Sen. William Craven of Oceanside, summoned from his sickbed.

Craven, who suffers a variety of ailments, helped provide a key vote, as four other Republicans--at the urging of Senate Leader John Burton (D-San Francisco)--also backed the measure, which passed, 28-6.

The floor fight was the first Burton had orchestrated since being elected leader of the upper house last month. Speaking to reporters afterward, he said, "I am very pleased that some of the Republicans rose above the pressure of the governor" and voted for the school bond bill.

Republican Gov. Pete Wilson opposes the $9.2-billion bond measure and proposes instead an $8-billion school bond plan that would be submitted to voters in $2-billion increments in the next four statewide elections.

Monday is the deadline for legislative approval of ballot measures for the June 2 election.

Republican opposition to the bond issue is considered even stronger in the Assembly than in the Senate.

Republicans in the lower house have demanded that as a condition of approving school bonds, a new ceiling be set on developer fees paid to school districts for construction of homes. They also oppose reducing the two-thirds vote required for approval of local school bonds, a change that Democrats favor.

Sean Walsh, Wilson's spokesman, warned Tuesday that if the Senate bill does reach the governor, it will be vetoed. He dismissed the upper house's action as a "political drill" and called on Democrats to "get back to the negotiating table and hammer out a workable package."

The governor and legislative leaders of both parties met Sunday to discuss school bonds but were unable to reach a compromise.

Democrats defended their measure, saying that they believe voters are willing to approve the sale of bonds to pay for the impact of 10 years of unprecedented enrollment growth and the consequent overcrowding in deteriorating schools.

Burton and other Democrats asserted that with the state's economy in robust shape, citizens have targeted education as their top priority and that opinion polls indicate voters would embrace spending even more for schools.

"Put this on the ballot and let the people decide," Burton told Republicans.

Sen. Jack O'Connell (D-Santa Barbara), Senate manager of the bill (AB 855), insisted that "we simply cannot wait any longer. Schools cannot be built overnight."

In pleading for an infusion of state aid, Democrats cited leaking and boarded-up schools, closure of school libraries for use as classrooms and the inability of school districts to overcome the two-thirds vote requirement for approval of local bonds.

But Senate GOP leader Rob Hurtt of Garden Grove warned that the bond issue would fail at the ballot box because it is too expensive.

"You make it sound like every school in California has a leaky roof," Hurtt told Democrats. "Don't be absurd. I don't think this thing holds any water."

Another opponent, Sen. Ray Haynes (R-Riverside) warned that a $9.2-billion bond issue would jeopardize California's credit rating on Wall Street, a notion that Democrats dismissed.

Compared with the needs of schools, the record-setting Senate plan would be merely a down payment, Democrats said. The state Department of Education estimates the need at $42 billion over the next 10 years, while the state Department of Finance figures it at about $22 billion.

Of the $9.2 billion being proposed by Democrats, public schools would receive $6.2 billion over the next four years. The University of California, California State University and community colleges would get $3 billion.

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