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Opponents, Backers Launch TV Campaigns


SACRAMENTO — Supporters and opponents of a November ballot measure that would make it easier for governments to contract privately for engineering and design work launched television ads this week that play on viewers' anxieties over traffic, public safety and wasteful spending.

Proposition 35 pits the private engineering and architectural firms that are sponsoring the measure against their public sector counterparts at Caltrans. The measure represents the latest round in a long-standing turf battle between the dueling sets of engineers, with those in the private sector seeking a larger share of lucrative highway and transit construction work.

Proposition 35 would benefit the private engineers by easing the ability of state and local governments to contract out for engineering and design work for projects ranging from schools to highways.

The private engineers contend that, despite a recent hiring binge, Caltrans lacks sufficient staff to handle the growing number of transportation projects expected to be launched over the next several years.

The union representing Caltrans engineers warns that passage of the measure, which is a constitutional amendment, would delay projects because it would force the state to develop new procedures.

Each side contends that the measure's outcome would affect the delivery of Gov. Gray Davis' multibillion-dollar traffic relief plan. Davis has not taken a position on Proposition 35.

The independent Legislative Analyst's Office has concluded that Caltrans could have difficulty keeping projects on schedule without changes in contracting out practices.

Efforts by members of the Legislature earlier this year to broker a compromise between the engineering groups failed, leading to the measure facing voters in November.

The measure relaxes restrictions on the amount of Caltrans planning that can be contracted out to private firms. Currently, the state can contract out architectural and engineering work only under certain conditions, such as when the work is of such a specialized nature that it cannot be performed by state employees.

The two sides have launched what promise to be competitive efforts to influence voters. The latest campaign contribution reports show that supporters of Proposition 35 had raised about $6.5 million through Sept. 30, while opponents had gathered about $5.4 million.

Supporters and detractors of Proposition 35 are banking on their respective television spots to interpret the complex measure to their advantage.

The measure's supporters began airing a television ad this week in Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego and Sacramento that features images of congested roads and traffic signs warning travelers to expect delays.

The commercial goes on to say that Caltrans needs help to finish overdue work fixing roads, shoring up highways against earthquake damage and reducing traffic congestion. It also features a quote by the California Taxpayers Assn. that "Proposition 35 saves taxpayers $2.5 billion annually."

Opponents of the measure fired back in the same four markets with a television spot that features pictures of firefighters, police officers, teachers and elderly people along with names of some groups that represent them in opposing the measure. The commercial contends that Proposition 35 could lead to corruption, unsafe highways, delays in classroom construction and higher taxes and that it would cost millions.

A spokesman for the No on Proposition 35 campaign said that once viewers see that the people they trust oppose the measure, they will too.

"Proposition 35 benefits a narrow special interest--large engineering contractors--at the expense of taxpayers, frustrated commuters and kids in new classrooms," said campaign spokesman Ted Toppin.

Supporters of Proposition 35 called the ad deceptive, taking particular issue with the ad's contention that the measure would lead to higher taxes.

"It's ridiculous to say [Proposition 35] means higher taxes," said Scott Macdonald, a spokesman for the Yes on Proposition 35 campaign. Supporters of the measure say instead it will cut costs by keeping projects on track.

The measure's fiscal impact, according to the Legislative Analyst's Office, will depend on how the state uses the contracting flexibility if the measure is approved.

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