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California to vote on veterans housing program, public access funding

PoliticsLaws and LegislationElectionsDemocracyBusinessFinanceLocal Government
California voters get a break with only two statewide measures on June ballot
State will vote on $600-million affordable housing program for veterans
Plan to require local governments to pay for public access to meetings and records up for vote

California voters weary of wading through a thicket of confusing state ballot measures in every election will get a welcome respite in the June primary.

A $600-million affordable housing program for veterans and a proposal that would require local governments to pick up the tab for public access to agency meetings and records are the only two statewide measures before voters.

The veterans housing measure — Proposition 41 — would allow the state to provide low-interest loans and other financial assistance to local governments, nonprofits and developers to provide affordable housing to veterans and their families. A portion of the funds would go toward providing transitional housing to homeless veterans.

The proposition was placed on the ballot by a unanimous, bipartisan vote of the Legislature.

California voters have approved $1.4 billion in bonds for veterans housing since 2000, but most of that money can be used only for purchasing single-family homes and farms.

In recent years, those funds have done little to address the housing needs of low-income veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, many of whom may be priced out of the California housing market or have difficulty finding a good job, said Rick Little of the Public Counsel's Center for Veterans Advancement in Los Angeles.

"The biggest problem now is finding housing for veterans with families, especially children, and low-income veterans,'' Little said. "There are a lot of female veterans now, and veterans with needs that just aren't being met.''

Under Proposition 41, the affordable housing complexes available to veterans could include on-site mental health counseling, day care, job training and other services to help them transition back into civilian life.

Former Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez said the measure also would assist the 19,000 homeless veterans living in California — who make up 25% of the nation's homeless veterans. Traditional veterans housing programs that encourage the purchase of homes and farms did little to help those Californians, he said.

"We know we have a huge problem, where veterans come home from Iraq and Afghanistan are finding themselves in homelessness at a faster rate than even their Vietnam-era counterparts," said Pérez, a candidate for state controller.

Providing affordable rental and transitional housing also would be a wiser use of state dollars, Pérez said, because the federal government already offers a much better program for veterans who have the financial wherewithal to buy a home.

Supporters of the veterans housing measure include developers, labor unions and real estate groups, and have raised more than $160,000 to campaign in favor of the statewide initiative. There is no organized political opposition to Proposition 41.

The other statewide measure on the ballot, Proposition 42, is a proposed constitutional amendment that would require local governments — rather than the state — to pay the costs associated with the public's access to agency meetings and records.

Current law requires the state to pick up the tab for any mandate that the Legislature places on local governments or agencies, including provisions of California's public records law that require, among other things, records be provided to Californians quickly and in electronic form. Those reimbursements cost the state tens of millions of dollars a year, according to state estimates.

To save that money, the Democratic governor and Democratic leadership in the Legislature last year pushed legislation to free local governments from having to comply with the public records mandates. They hastily reversed course after an outcry from news organizations, open-government groups and others across the state.

The proposed constitutional amendment, which the Legislature voted unanimously to place on the June ballot, would eliminate the state's responsibility to pay local governments for their costs related to the Public Records Law. The amendment also restates existing law that local agencies must follow California's Open Records Act and the open meetings law, known as the Brown Act.

"What it does is remove the Public Records Act and the Brown Act from being suspended by the Legislature whenever it faces a budget crisis,'' said Jim Ewert of the California Newspaper Publishers Assn., which backs Proposition 42.

Jim McKibben, a representative for the California Assn. of Clerks and Elections Officials, said the governor and Legislature are claiming the ballot measure is about government transparency. But that's a ruse, he said. In reality, this is a simple attempt by the state to pass its expenses on to local governments.

"The Legislature has been dying to do this for years," said McKibben, a clerk for Los Angeles County.

Jean Kinney Hearst, lobbyist for the California State Assn. of Counties, said that if the measure passes, rural counties and tiny government agencies such as water districts will feel the greatest financial pinch.

"The law applies the same to Los Angeles County, which has an entire cadre of attorneys … and to a tiny Podunk agency in rural California,'' Hearst said.

The California Public Records Act established that access to government information was a "fundamental and necessary right of every person in this state." It was signed into law by Gov. Ronald Reagan in 1968.

Laws expanding the act were signed into law by Gov. Gray Davis in 2000 and 2001. Los Angeles County in 2002 filed a legal challenge to those new requirements with the Commission on State Mandates, successfully arguing that the new provisions put a financial burden on local governments and should be reimbursed by the state.

Proposition 42 has no organized political opposition. A labor union group supporting Proposition 42 has raised more than $389,000 — with more than $215,000 of that coming from the Democratic State Central Committee of California.

The Democrats already have sent out a campaign mailer proclaiming the party to be a strong supporter of "open and transparent government." It includes a glossy picture of the governor.

phil.willon@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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