Gov. Jerry Brown should spell out how he'd fund school construction

Gov. Jerry Brown has been issuing written critiques of the state school construction program for two years

California governors have enormous power to shove around legislatures. And Gov. Jerry Brown has learned how to use it without working up a sweat.

Here's the latest example:

At the state Capitol, the notion of providing schoolchildren with adequate classrooms has always been akin to supporting motherhood. This year, a proposed school construction bond issue zipped through the Assembly and three Senate committees without a single "no" vote, 127-0.

There was no opposition, either among the politicians or the varied interests representing education, labor, business and anti-tax groups. Except, that is, for one naysayer: the contrarian governor.

Brown objected to piling up more debt, groused about how Sacramento dispenses the money to local districts and even questioned whether the state should be involved in helping to fund public school construction.

So legislative leaders basically said, "Oh, never mind." And they buried the bond bill last week just as it was headed to the Senate floor.

Now it's too late anyway, according to the secretary of state, to place the bond measure on the November ballot.

A governor is always tough to confront, especially when he's a member of your own party. It's risky to cross or embarrass the guy. He's intimidating. He can sign or veto your bills, line-item-veto money from a pet project and appoint you or a friend to a judgeship. He can listen to you or slam the door.

Legislative term limits have strengthened any governor's clout, particularly until lame-duck syndrome sets in. That won't be for a while in Brown's case. He's a virtual cinch for reelection in November. Now in his 12th year as a governor, Brown is skilled with all the power levers.

When Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) and Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) tried to pitch the governor on the school bond last week, Brown essentially told them: What is it about "no" that you don't understand?

For two years Brown has been issuing written critiques of the state school construction program, inserting these missives into his budget proposals. But he hasn't offered any concrete details about how he'd fix the system that he alone, apparently, doesn't like.

"We don't know where he is; it's a lot of vagueness," complains Dave Cogdill, president of the California Building Industry Assn. and a former Senate Republican leader. "Maybe the governor's got solutions he's not aware of yet."

Brown asserts that the system is "overly complex," requiring sign-off from not only local entities but also 10 state agencies. "It's cumbersome and costly," he says.

He wants some consolidation but doesn't say how.

Also, the governor says, local school boards aren't required to choose between classroom and construction spending. They're from separate pots of money. He wants to cover daily education and debt payment expenses under one budget, as the state universities have been required to do under his reign.

That makes sense and should be relatively easy to figure out.

Currently, Brown continues, state construction money is doled out on a first-come, first-served basis. He contends that gives an edge to large districts with lots of staffers who can race to Sacramento with funding applications.

OK, insert some priorities into the process.

Further, the funding goes out to old-fashioned school facilities and doesn't pay for "modern educational delivery methods."

Fine, tell legislators what you're talking about.

But mainly, it seems, Brown doesn't like the whole idea of local districts continuing to rely on increasing state debt to build and modernize schools.

The state currently is paying $2.4 billion annually on K-12 school bond debt, plus $600 million for community colleges and the universities.

In total, the state is paying $5.2 billion annually on all general obligation bond debt. Its outstanding debt is $76 billion. And there's $25 billion in authorized, but untapped, bond borrowing available.

All this is unsustainable, Brown argues.

"If we continue to pass bond after bond, at some point it starts crowding out our ability to fund other priorities outside education," state Finance Department spokesman H.D. Palmer says.

Replies the school bond author, Assembly Education Committee Chairwoman Joan Buchanan (D-Alamo): "We can sell bonds for high-speed rail. That's OK. But he doesn't want to sell bonds to educate children."

You hear that a lot in the Capitol, but usually not on the record from a Democrat.

The bullet train bonds that Brown wants to sell total roughly $9 billion. The school bond proposal started out at $9 billion and got whittled down to $4.3 billion in the Senate Appropriations Committee. It was at that meeting last week that the Brown administration finally officially opposed the measure.

Actually, the governor had been whispering for months that he didn't want any bond issue on the ballot as he ran for reelection. But because of the drought, he was forced politically to accept a $7.5-billion water bond.

But the state kitty for school building and modernization is dry. The state, local districts and home developers ordinarily pay roughly a third each of the cost. But if there's no state money, developers kick in double. Cogdill estimates that will add more than $10,000 to the average cost of a new home.

That's likely to depress home building and set back economic recovery — in addition to harming school kids stuck in overcrowded or decrepit classrooms.

But, for Brown, this is the year for reelection, not school construction.

Hopefully, next year he'll decide exactly what he wants and use his power positively to get it done.

george.skelton@latimes.com

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