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How to save, or sink, the state Nov. 7

For people who lean toward fiscal moderation, California voters are being asked for an awful lot.

They’re being asked to roughly double the infrastructure bond debt the state already owes -- $45 billion, plus $42.7 billion on the Nov. 7 ballot.

That’s not the whole story. There’s currently $30 billion worth of authorized bonds still waiting to be sold.

For every dollar borrowed, figure paying an additional dollar in interest over a normal 30-year loan period.

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The state, during the past fiscal year, made $5.1 billion in debt payments out of the strained $93-billion general fund. That included payments on the 2004 bond issue that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger wheedled out of voters to meet daily budget expenses. If the new bonds are approved, annual debt payments could jump by $2.8 billion.

Then there also is $3 billion in proposed tax increases on the ballot. Two-thirds would be levied on tobacco; the rest on oil, property and corporations.

To put all this in political perspective, only last June California voters rejected a small, innocuous $600-million bond issue for local libraries and a controversial $2-billion income tax hike on the rich to finance preschool for 4-year-olds.

Frequent voters in this state are closely divided between those who want lower taxes and fewer government services, and those who desire the opposite, according to polling by the Public Policy Institute of California.

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Therefore, many fiscal centrists no doubt are facing a dilemma as they prepare to vote.

Here’s the way I look at this ballot: It contains two types of spending measures -- those offered up by the governor and the Legislature following bipartisan agreement, and the initiatives backed by special interests looking after their pet causes.

In the first category is Sacramento’s negotiated infrastructure package -- four bonds that total a record $37.3 billion.

Specifically, the measures are: Proposition 1B, $19.9 billion for transportation; Prop. 1C, $2.9 billion for affordable housing; Prop. 1D, $10.4 billion for schools; and Prop. 1E, $4.1 billion for flood control.

Any Californian who doesn’t vote for these bonds might as well just pack up and move to Nevada, Idaho or Mississippi. And business owners should take their jobs and employees with them.

Because soon it’s going to be impossible to get to work in urban areas. Freeways will be impassable. Rails impractical. Moreover, public schools will be depressingly overcrowded. Housing unaffordable for the working stiff.

We’re not even talking here about planning for future growth. This is about desperately trying to catch up with the present after decades of penny-pinching neglect.

There’s a premium price to pay for living in California with its finite water, vulnerability to pollution and exploding population -- alongside earthquakes, mudslides, fires and floods.

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But regarding that second category of spending proposition, the special interest initiative: Five are on this ballot. Dump every one.

They represent the sort of ballot-box budgeting that has crippled our elected officials’ ability to set priorities, budget sensibly and resolve California’s problems.

A special interest or rich guy will get a bright idea that’s rejected at the Capitol -- which doesn’t mean the place is dysfunctional -- and then pour in millions to peddle an initiative. If the electorate buys in, that locks out a potential funding source for higher priorities, such as finally pulling the state out of the red. And the money is spent with little accountability, not subject to the normal checks and balances of legislative and gubernatorial oversight.

Sometimes there’s also questionable pay-to-play. An initiative entrepreneur will shop a proposal to potential investors, who agree to back the measure and, in turn, reap some of its benefits.

One example is Proposition 84, a $5.4-billion bond for water quality, flood control, environmental protection, land buying -- a buffet of goodies. There’s a long list of pay-to-play bankrollers, including the Nature Conservancy and the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles.

There are four initiative tax measures:

Prop. 86 would quadruple the cigarette tax from 87 cents a pack to $3.47 -- a $2.60 leap. This is sponsored by the hospital industry to pay for emergency rooms and other healthcare. But it’s a cowardly tax, hitting mostly low-income people. Do-gooders point out it would discourage smoking. But so would anti-smoking programs. And there’s very little in this proposal for that.

Prop. 87 would impose a tax on oil production to raise $4 billion for development of alternative energy. The sugar daddy is movie producer Stephen L. Bing, who has kicked in a phenomenal $40 million. A heavy Democratic donor, Bing also has brought former President Clinton onto the pro-87 side.

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Alternative energy is going to be developed on its own by private enterprise. There’s no need for state government to play venture capitalist.

Prop. 88 would levy a regressive $50 tax on each property parcel -- the same amount whether in Brentwood or Boron -- for school projects. The idea is so unappealing that the campaign has folded.

Prop. 89 would raise corporate taxes to fund public financing of state political campaigns. It’s a worthy cause, but the entire public should pay.

Moreover, there’s a secondary, unfair agenda in this so-called reform, sponsored by the California Nurses Assn. The measure would make it harder for business to compete in the political arena. The nurses then would have an easier time pushing a future universal healthcare initiative.

California can’t afford all these things right now.

But it does need to rebuild dilapidated infrastructure by ratifying the rare deal reached by the governor and Legislature. Failing that, we should just head for the border.

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George Skelton writes Monday and Thursday. Reach him at george.skelton@latimes.com.


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