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California and the West | CAPITOL JOURNAL

On School Bond Issue, Lawmakers Get the Dunce Cap

March 05, 1998|GEOEGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — As voters, we really don't ask a lot of the Legislature. That's because we haven't come to expect a lot. It seems most of the big, controversial issues--bilingual education, affirmative action, auto insurance--increasingly are settled by the voters themselves, through ballot initiatives. But is it too much to ask that our paid hires at the Capitol bear down and at least agree on a school bond proposal for the state ballot?

You would think not. Education is the voters' No. 1 concern, the polls and the pols tell us. Economic times are good; tax dollars are flowing into the public treasury. This should be easy. It's not like asking for something truly difficult, such as an updated state water plan or HMO reform. We're talking about school construction bonds--apple pie, motherhood and cuddly kids.

Yet, the Legislature--and the governor--can't seem to get it together for this, the most basic of tasks.

There is one positive way to look at this pending failure: Our officeholders reached high for important school finance reforms and came up short. They should be applauded for noble effort.

But now, they're on the verge of giving up and walking away with nothing. And if that happens, they should be booed for incompetence and stubbornness.

The deadline for placing a bond issue on the June ballot is Monday. That's a real deadline, according to the secretary of state. Weeks ago, the Legislature blew off the original deadline. So even if it does meet this extended deadline, there would be an extra $3-million cost for printing and mailing supplemental ballot pamphlets.

This is where it stands: A huge $9.2-billion bond proposal, designed to cover four years of school construction, squeaked through the Senate Tuesday night. The Democratic measure is up for a vote today in the Assembly, where Republicans are threatening to kill it. They contend it's too much borrowing and lacks reforms. In any event, Gov. Pete Wilson has vowed a veto.

Then, most likely, the Legislature will vacillate until the June 25 deadline for placing a bond measure on the November ballot. And students and teachers will suffer through four more months of leaky roofs, backed-up toilets and classrooms overflowing into dingy halls.

*

"You make it sound like every school in California has a leaky roof," Senate GOP Leader Rob Hurtt of Garden Grove told Democrats during floor debate. "Don't be absurd. This argument doesn't hold any water, to make a pun."

To which veteran Sen. Leroy Greene (D-Carmichael), the Education Committee chairman, replied: "No, every school does not have a leaky roof. But there are a great number that do. I'll tell you one thing, you go down to Compton and ask them to please remove the boards off the boarded-up schools. Take a look at schools that haven't a pane of glass anywhere because all the windows have been broken--and see what the needs are."

California's overall need is this: One new school each day to house the 100,000-plus annual increase in students. Plus repairs and remodeling of old schools. The 10-year cost estimate is $40 billion. The last state bond issue--$3 billion--was two years ago and now the vault is empty again. Still, the State Allocation Board has been approving $100-million worth of unfunded projects each month.

School construction is financed three ways: state bonds, local bonds and residential developer fees. This is where the politicians clash.

Local bonds require a two-thirds majority vote. Democrats and school officials long have sought to lower that hurdle to a simple majority vote. On this, Wilson is their ally. But Republican lawmakers and anti-tax zealots have refused to budge.

Republicans want the escalating developer fees cut, but they won't compromise on the two-thirds vote. Just lowering the vote requirement to 58%, as some Democrats have offered, would get 80% of the bonds passed. Currently, just half pass--and that forces more reliance on developer fees.

"Each year," Sen. Greene noted, "the developers run to their friends and the schools run to their friends. And they're not strong enough to pass anything, but are strong enough to defeat each other."

*

This week, new Senate leader John Burton (D-San Francisco) ramrodded through his house a "clean" bond proposal, unladen by reforms.

Late Wednesday, Assembly Education Committee Chairman Kerry Mazzoni (D-San Rafael) began trying to patch together a last-ditch compromise with Wilson and the Assembly GOP. The governor was insisting on a smaller bond--something closer to his own $8-billion, eight-year proposal--plus other "reforms" that could attract GOP lawmakers.

There will be political spin and finger pointing. But the real issue is responsibility. As parents tell their children, It doesn't matter whose fault it is. Just clean up the mess.

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