Voters turned frugal on election day, turning down several state and local bonds and taxes -- and raising questions about prospects for $47 billion in state bonds proposed for the November ballot.
The two failed state ballot measures would have used $600 million in bonds to build and refurbish public libraries, and raised income taxes on wealthy Californians by $2.4 billion annually for preschools.
Their demise could give pause to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Democratic legislative leaders as they contemplate how to persuade Californians to support the richest series of bond measures in state history.
Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata (D-Oakland) said the failure of the library ballot was a “sobering” warning not to assume that voters would embrace the massive infrastructure bond package negotiated by Schwarzenegger and the Legislature this spring.
“We’re well advised not to be complacent,” Perata said. “It’s sobering. It was a very modest proposal for something that most of us would say is an important element to California’s culture and history, and it was defeated.”
Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles), who is pushing for the November bond package, said the bonds’ failure was an indication of “initiative fatigue.”
“Everybody needs to campaign for these bonds” or the measures could lose, said Nunez, adding that he was referring to Schwarzenegger and the governor’s November opponent, Democratic Treasurer Phil Angelides. “That’s the only way we’re going to get those bonds passed,” Nunez said.
Even as the statewide electorate turned down Propositions 81, the library bond, and 82, the preschool initiative, voters in five counties rejected sales-tax hikes that would have funded transportation projects.
About half of the roughly 60 local school bond measures statewide were approved -- “a historically low rate,” according to California’s Coalition for Adequate School Housing. In San Diego County, voters approved one hospital bond but rejected another.
Five propositions on the November ballot call for a combined $47 billion in bonds to improve ports, roads, schools and levees and start building a high-speed train system. The governor and Legislature approved $37 billion of that sum this year.
“Everyone has to be a little humble and understand that even if it appears to be mom and apple pie, voters take any tax measure, including statewide bonds, seriously,” said pollster and political consultant Heidi von Szeliski of HVS & Associates in San Diego.
But several factors suggest that there could be a difference between voters’ dismissal of Propositions 81 and 82 and how they will view the November measures.
“I certainly wouldn’t read much into it in terms of the infrastructure bond package in November,” said Rick Claussen, manager for the No-on-82 campaign. “They’re very different animals.”
Backers of the library bond spent less than $500,000 on their campaign and had little backing from major political figures.
The preschool measure initially enjoyed support but ended up being opposed by notable members of both major political parties and nearly every newspaper editorial page in the state.
By contrast, Schwarzenegger and legislative leaders have vowed to campaign for the November bonds. And those measures are sure to win financial backing from public employees unions and the construction trades, along with business interests including builders.
“The November bonds have broad support and are extremely well funded,” said Democratic consultant Phil Giarrizzo, who oversaw the library bond campaign. “So many interests are at stake that the drumbeat for the bonds will be loud and long.”
Giarrizzo said he believed public attention was focused on the November bond package, perhaps harming prospects for Proposition 81.
“The thought of a big bond package in November led people to think about how much it is all going to cost,” Giarrizzo said, adding that voters could have been “putting off the bond decision until November.”
Oakland political consultant Larry Tramutola, who specializes in local bonds and won several on Tuesday’s ballot, said that if the November measures were to pass, proponents must make clear to voters how they would personally benefit from any new spending. “People in Northern California are not going to support something they perceive will benefit Southern California and vice versa,” Tramutola said. “You would want to localize the benefits.”
Some political experts said the lack of voter support for Tuesday’s spending measures was linked to low voter turnout.
“It really may signal that for California voters, who have put up with lots of stuff being on the ballot, maybe this really is a turning point,” said former state Sen. Dede Alpert, who helped draft the library bond. “It may be a signal that people are not anxious to spend public dollars.”
In addition to the bond measures, there probably will be measures on the November ballot that would raise certain taxes. In past years, voters have approved tax hikes on tobacco. They also have agreed to raise income taxes on high-income Californians to pay for improved services for severely mentally ill Californians.
“Each time one [tax measure] passes, it makes it harder to pass the next one,” said Democratic consultant Roy Behr.
Some experts say voters are increasingly reluctant to impose new curbs on the state budget. “There is a growing sense that we’ve gone too far with ballot-box budgeting,” Behr said.