Protections Necessary When Only a Select Group Pays

Fred Buenger is chair and Mike Saliba is president of the Ventura County Taxpayers Assn

At both the state and local level, 1998 has been hailed as the year for education, and educational issues have become a major debating point in the races for statewide offices. As part of this discussion, there is an effort in Sacramento, backed up by various newspaper editorials, to lower the requirement by which local school bonds can pass, from a two-thirds vote to a simple majority.

Proponents of this change fail to acknowledge the fundamental basis for the two-thirds requirement: Although all voters cast their ballots for a local bond, only property owners are taxed to pay for the bond.

A basic principle of fairness dictates that when a smaller base of people is being taxed (only the property owners), more than a majority of the people voting should be required to pass the tax. Therefore, the power to pass a local school bond should continue to require this two-thirds vote.

This two-thirds vote protection for property owners has been in the California Constitution since 1879 and has consistently provided the appropriate protection for homeowners who pay the tax. California voters are in favor of continuing this protection and, in 1993, overwhelmingly rejected a statewide ballot proposition that would have lowered the voting requirement to a simple majority for local school bonds.

Ironically, in the past 2 1/2 years most school bonds have passed, even with the two-thirds majority vote requirement. Of the last 49 school bonds on the ballot, 34 of them (about 70%) passed. This 70% passage rate is very favorable, unless you think that all school bonds should pass without regard to their merit. Some statistics that track percentage of passage of local school bonds include votes taken in the early 1990s that did not pass because at that time property values throughout California were declining and the state's economy was in a slump.

It has been consistently shown that property owners will pass local school bonds when a school district is perceived to be doing an efficient job and the district clearly demonstrates that the money will be used for needed long-term school construction projects.

By advocating retention of the two-thirds majority vote, we are not arguing against spending money on schools. In fact, in the current fiscal year, about 55% ($31.7 billion) of the state budget is being spent on public education, which is a significant increase from the $16.9 billion spent in fiscal year 1994-95.

The proponents of lowering the two-thirds vote requirement to a majority also point to the fact that statewide bonds only require a majority vote. These two bonding mechanisms, however, should not be compared in this way. Statewide bonds are a general obligation of the state, payable by everyone, and are not a tax on only property owners.

We recognize that some of our schools need fixing. But is the answer necessarily throwing more money at the problem without first asking whether our present education dollars are being properly spent? Many ideas could be implemented before local property owners are saddled with increased taxes. State law could be changed to make school construction more efficient and economical, such as by eliminating prevailing wage criteria, streamlining the red tape involved in school construction and allowing use of nonpublic facilities for education purposes. In addition, reform is needed regarding some of the very costly construction requirements imposed for building schools but which are not placed on other buildings where children stay, such as day-care centers and homes.

The two-thirds vote requirement for local school bonds is justified and should be retained.

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