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The $46-Billion Questions Await State's Voters

Ballot measures would release a torrent of spending on California's infrastructure but test the public's stomach for more debt and taxes.

September 08, 2006|Michael Finnegan | Times Staff Writer

Up and down the November ballot, Californians face choices about vast sums of money: how much to spend, how much to borrow, how much to generate by raising taxes.

Together, the proposals would open a $46-billion gusher of spending on highways, schools, levees, hospitals, housing, parkland and more. They would add $84 billion in debt and interest to state budgets over the next 30 years. Taxes, mainly on oil and tobacco, would rise by more than $3 billion a year.

The torrent of money on the ballot gives voters a chance to set California's fiscal course for decades: They could reaffirm the state's reputation for clamping restraints on public spending, launch a new era of activist government or opt for something in between.

With television ad skirmishes already underway, a key question is whether the sheer magnitude of the total spending risks eroding support for many, if not all, of the ballot measures. All 13 hold fiscal implications for California.

"It looks like people are getting inundated with separate spending requests," said Democratic pollster David Binder, whose surveys and focus groups have found growing voter resistance over the last decade to bond proposals. "My sense is that they all are going to suffer to some degree."

Squabbles over taxes and spending also have been the main conflict in the race between Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and his Democratic challenger, state Treasurer Phil Angelides, making fiscal priorities the dominant theme of the California election season.

Schwarzenegger has made no new taxes his signature campaign pledge. Angelides has made his a $5-billion increase in taxes on corporations and high-income Californians; he says they should "pay their fair share again" to improve schools.

Facing relentless attacks from the governor over taxes, Angelides called last month for $1.4 billion in tax cuts, mostly for middle-income Californians and small businesses.

So far, polls showing Schwarzenegger running well ahead of Angelides appear to reflect, at least in part, a voter reluctance to embrace the sort of expansive fiscal agenda that the Democrat advocates.

In the election as a whole, "a threshold question that many voters will be asking themselves will be whether or not they pay enough taxes as it is," said Frank Schubert, a strategist for campaigns to defeat two ballot proposals that would raise taxes.

Darry Sragow, a veteran Democratic strategist who is not working on any November ballot measures, described the political climate for spending proposals as difficult, thanks to the high cost of gasoline and other necessities, along with the public's deep sense of insecurity in the 9/11 aftermath.

"When people are feeling uncertain and threatened and scared, they're much more likely to be risk-averse, and that means they're not particularly receptive to proposals that are going to take more money out of their pockets," said Sragow, who has run successful school-bond campaigns in Southern California.

Among other things, bond advocates must show that the borrowed money would meet critical needs, he said.

For proponents of the nearly $43 billion in public works bonds on the ballot, a danger sign appeared last month in a survey of likely voters by the Public Policy Institute of California: 59% said the total was too much money for the state to borrow.

Yet the only bond proposal that was clearly losing (40% yes; 45% no) was Proposition 84, a $5.4-billion plan by conservation and water-supply groups for projects to protect water quality, enhance flood controls, acquire parkland, preserve forests and clean up beaches, among other things.

As for the other four bond measures -- which constitute the bulk of spending on the ballot -- at least 50% backed each one of them, although voters so far know little about the proposals. (A measure requires a simple majority, 50% plus one vote, to pass.)

Combined, the four measures make up the $37.2 billion in public works projects proposed by Schwarzenegger and the Legislature: Proposition 1B, $19.9 billion for road construction; 1C, $2.8 billion for housing; 1D, $10.4 billion to build and repair schools; and 1E, $4.1 billion for flood protection.

Schwarzenegger and Democratic lawmakers vowed to campaign for the bonds, but so far, the governor's focus has been more on his own reelection effort as legislators scrambled to wrap up their session last week in Sacramento.

A bipartisan group of consultants -- described by many strategists as unwieldy -- has assembled to push for voter approval of the bonds, but there has been scant public evidence of a campaign.

The construction industry has put millions of dollars behind the transportation and school proposals, and the California Teachers Assn. is expected to spend heavily on the school plan.

Aides to Schwarzenegger and Democratic leaders said the campaign would focus on concrete results that the bonds could produce in traffic relief, improved schools and disaster protection.

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