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California and the West | CAPITOL JOURNAL

School Bonds Can't Pass if Not on Ballot

March 16, 1998|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — Assemblywoman Kerry Mazzoni, a mild-mannered moderate, has this radical idea. Her scheme could revolutionize the Legislature. She's plotting to negotiate a school bond agreement actually before the next deadline.

The San Rafael Democrat, chairwoman of the Assembly Education Committee, watched in frustration March 5 as her legislative house dithered past midnight and failed to agree on a school bond proposal for the June primary ballot.

It was irresponsible. There still were four days left until the deadline--last Monday--for placing a measure on the ballot. But legislators were in a rush to get to Washington for their annual schmoozorama--they call it "briefings"--with the federal power elite. So the leaders just shut down.

For the first time since 1986, there will be no school bond proposal on the state primary ballot. In fact, for the first time since 1964, there will be no state bond of any kind on the primary ballot.

The next opportunity for generating state money for school construction will be the November ballot. The deadline for that is June 25.

The way things work in the Legislature is the way they generally work in life. People daydream until awakened by a deadline. In the Legislature, moreover, deadlines often are surrounded by hazards. Disparate issues get tangled together by some political game and used as leverage in deal-making. June 25 is not just the legislative deadline for school bonds, but for all bonds--water, parks, prisons. . . . Also, the budget-signing deadline is July 1.

Mazzoni desperately wants to avoid these land mines. She'll urge Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa (D-Los Angeles) to crank up this week. Her strategy is to quickly win Assembly passage of a compromise and move it to the Senate for more negotiating.

"This is the biggest issue we have to face this year," asserts Mazzoni, 49, a former school board president. "We can't allow ourselves to get down to the deadline, with school bonds being held hostage for the budget and everybody pointing fingers."

*

Assembly Republican Leader Bill Leonard of San Bernardino says he agrees. "I want to do it right now," he insists. "I'm concerned about lethargy."

The issues are these:

* Bond size. The proposal blocked by Assembly Republicans March 5 was $9.2 billion to cover four years. That's triple the size of any previous state bond. In January, Gov. Pete Wilson proposed four separate $2-billion bonds spread over eight years. He also wants to place $2.1 billion in water and parks bonds on the November ballot, and worries that voters will balk at all the billions. But now he has offered privately to compromise on a $7.5-billion, four-year school bond. So that is what Mazzoni intends to propose.

* Two-thirds vote requirement for local bond proposals. Democrats want to lower that to a simple majority. Wilson agrees. Even conservative Dan Lungren, the prospective GOP gubernatorial nominee, endorses lowering the requirement to 60%. But the Assembly GOP won't budge. Period. So forget it.

* Prevailing wage. Republicans want to reduce construction costs by cutting labor pay. Democrats won't budge. Forget this too.

* Other "cost containment." There's plenty of negotiating room--on permit streamlining, local control over architectural design, simpler building codes. . . .

* Developer fees. School construction increasingly is being financed by fees on new housing, up to $8 a square foot. Republicans demand that these fees be lowered. Democrats are sympathetic. This can be negotiated.

* "50-50 match." Wilson wants school districts to match state construction money. There may be a compromise exemption for broke districts.

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There is no disputing the need. The state vault is empty. There's a backlog of nearly $1 billion in unfunded, state-approved projects.

Republicans always lose the PR battle when they vote against schools. But in this case, I blame Democrats. They're in charge. And they needed less than one-third of the Assembly GOP votes to pass a bond bill.

It was Villaraigosa's first test as speaker, and he flunked. Instead of negotiating with minority leader Leonard, the speaker went around him and tried to work on Republicans individually. Not a good plan.

As for new Senate leader John Burton (D-San Francisco), he rammed through the $9.2-billion bond, but then gummed up the works by recessing his house early and allowing members to scatter. Even if Villaraigosa had negotiated a compromise, the Senate wasn't around to act.

The essential question here is what do Democratic leaders want most--a bond issue or a political issue? Mazzoni says she just wants to build schools.

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