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Measure May Help Ease State's Project Backlog

Backers and foes of relaxed rules for using private contractors await reaction by officials and Caltrans.


SACRAMENTO — California voters' approval of Proposition 35 paves the way for government agencies to give private firms a bigger share of their engineering and design workload.

The measure, which passed Tuesday, 55% to 45%, makes it easier for state and local governments to contract with private firms on projects ranging from schools to highways.

Now, both supporters and detractors will be watching to see if Gov. Gray Davis, the Legislature and Caltrans use the new tool to speed the transportation agency's work.

Proposition 35 was the only ballot measure that Davis did not take a position on and he made no mention of it at a news conference Wednesday in Los Angeles.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday November 12, 2000 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 3 Foreign Desk 1 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction
Proposition 32--In an article in Thursday's paper, an incorrect number was used to identify the Tuesday ballot measure allowing bonds to be issued for loans to veterans. The measure was Proposition 32.

But Garry South, Davis's top political strategist, said he did not see Davis "shedding any tears" over the measure's passage. The contracting out of design work for state projects, particularly the improving of roads and highways, will "absolutely" increase, although it is unclear how much, South said.

"The dirty little secret is, we don't have enough employees to build all these projects," South said. "There's a general sense that there is a backlog at Caltrans."

South said Davis wants Proposition 35's competitive selection process to be clarified.

In political circles, the measure's passage represents a victory for the private engineering and architectural firms that placed it on the ballot and a defeat for the union representing Caltrans engineers. The sparring groups--the calculator crowd's version of the Hatfields and the McCoys--have battled it out for decades in the courts, the Legislature and at the ballot box.

The warring sides raised more than $20 million for the Proposition 35 fight, according to campaign contribution records.

The private engineering firms, which appeared to have outspent their opponents by nearly $2 million, remained worried Wednesday that passage of Proposition 35 could give rise to yet another battle.

"There are concerns that [the public engineers] will go right back to the courts to try to block the implementation of Proposition 35," said Scott Macdonald, a spokesman for the Yes on Proposition 35 campaign.

The measure's lead opponents said they believe its passage raises a host of implementation questions, including whether the state will require competitive bidding for the private contracts.

"We think that's appropriate to government contracts that they be competitively bid," said Bruce Blanning, executive assistant of the Professional Engineers in California Government, the union that represents 11,000 engineers, architects and land surveyors employed at state agencies.

Macdonald noted that the state now does not require competitive bidding for such contracts.

The voters also dealt a lopsided 39% to 61% defeat to one of the Legislature's pet projects, Proposition 33, which would have enabled state lawmakers to join the same retirement plan as most state civil servants.

As part of voter-approved Proposition 140 in 1990, which imposed term limits on state officeholders, legislators were stripped of their generous retirement plans. Supporters and opponents of the plan to restore pensions conducted virtually no campaigns.

In hindsight, Assemblyman Lou Papan (D-Millbrae), who wrote Proposition 33, said he believed a stronger campaign should have been mounted to persuade voters of the fairness of the measure.

"I think that is where we fell short," Papan said. He was so convinced personally of the measure's merits that "I just presumed that [few Californians] would vote against it."

But Lew Uhler, president of the National Tax Limitation Committee, an original backer of term limits, said the defeat demonstrated that Californians viewed Proposition 33 as "a special effort on the part of legislators to increase their own pay and perks."

In other final returns Wednesday:

* Voters defeated Proposition 37 by the narrow margin of 48% to 52%. The measure would have redefined state and local regulatory fees as taxes. As such, the fees would have been subject to a two-thirds vote of the Legislature or local electorate.

The measure was sponsored by the tobacco, alcoholic beverage and petroleum industries, which claimed businesses faced potential new taxes disguised as fees.

Opponents countered that sponsors were trying to pass the costs on to taxpayers.

* Voters overwhelmingly passed Proposition 33 by a margin of 67%-33%. The measure authorizes the sale of $500 million in bonds to finance low-interest home loans for military veterans. Every veterans' home loan bond issue since 1921 has been approved by voters.

* In San Francisco, a grass-roots growth-control effort to shut down the spread of new technology companies in parts of the city won a narrow victory, garnering just 50.7% of the popular vote.

Voters rejected a similar but less restrictive measure backed by Mayor Willie Brown, a defeat activists termed a rebuke to Brown's policy of promoting explosive growth that many believed was ruining San Francisco's prized neighborhood character.

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