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Landmark School Bond Put on Ballot

Education: Voters will decide about half of the $25.6-billion issue on Nov. 5, the rest in 2004.

April 05, 2002|CARL INGRAM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — The Legislature voted final approval Thursday of a landmark bill that would put before voters a $25.6-billion school construction bond issue, the state's biggest ever.

The borrowing plan would be split in two for voter approval. The first $13.3-billion issue would appear on the Nov. 5 ballot. The remaining $12.3 billion would be on the ballot in 2004.

With no votes to spare on a bipartisan tally, the Senate sent the proposal to Gov. Gray Davis for his promised signature. An hour later, Democrats and a few Republicans in the Assembly voted narrow passage of a $2.1-billion bond issue bill to finance housing programs for low-income Californians.

The housing program, by Senate Leader John L. Burton (D-San Francisco), is scheduled to be voted on by the Senate next week and delivered to Davis. The governor is expected to embrace it as part of his proposed aid to the homeless initiative.

Davis, who had urged the Legislature to enact a multiyear school finance program, praised approval of the school construction bond bill as "historic." He noted that it will be California's biggest bond issue for schools. "Believe me, we need it," Davis said in a statement.

In 1998, voters approved a $9.2-billion bond issue for public schools, colleges and the university systems. At the time, it was the most expensive ever. But its revenue has run out, and schools are still struggling to meet enrollment and modernization demands.

State school officials said that at least $21.1 billion in new state bond funds is needed over the next four years to catch up with demands of the expanding enrollment and to improve aging schoolhouses, most of which are more than 30 years old.

The state funds would match bonds approved at recent elections by local voters.

The plan earmarks $11.4 billion from the Nov. 5 bond issue for new school construction and modernization projects at K-12 schools, including $4.8 billion for projects that had been filed with the state by Feb. 1 but for which funds had not been approved.

An additional $3.45 billion would be earmarked for construction of schools in fast-growing areas: $1.4 billion for upgrading older schools and $1.7 billion for "critically overcrowded" schools, such as in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Higher-education building projects would receive $1.65 billion, including $746 million for community colleges. At campuses of the University of California, $408.2 million would be allocated; at California State University, $495.9 million. Other higher education projects would be financed by $651 million in lease revenue bonds.

State Sen. Jim Battin (R-La Quinta), who represents regions around Palm Springs, complained that suburban districts would not get their fair share while Los Angeles Unified would get more than its share.

"This bond is not fair," Battin said.

The $2.1-billion housing bond issue, which Assembly supporters said would help resolve an acute shortage, would be the biggest of its kind in state history.

It would include $910 million for construction of multifamily housing; $195 million for local emergency housing; $15 million for low-income UC and Cal State student housing; and $200 million for migrant farm labor shelter. It also would provide assistance for down payments and rent subsidies.

Republican opponents of the bill argued that with the state facing a huge budget deficit, it was no time for the state to go deeper into debt by borrowing from bond sale revenue.

"Now is not the time for such largess," said Assemblyman Rod Pacheco (R-Riverside).

But Assemblyman Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach) argued that housing must be dealt with immediately.

"The housing crisis is real. We have to act," Lowenthal said.

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