Can we be a 1st-rate state with a 3rd-rate budget?

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LOU CANNON is the author of five books on Ronald Reagan, most recently "Governor Reagan: His Rise to Power."

Can california go back to the future?

At a time when Americans distrust their leaders and doubt government’s ability to deliver, California voters are being asked to approve massive bond issues, totaling $42.7 billion, to rebuild

schools, roads and other parts of the state’s crumbling infrastructure.

The package of five bond issues on the November ballot, four of them the product of an elaborate compromise between Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Democratic-controlled Legislature, overshadows everything else on the ballot. In terms of California’s future, they are arguably more significant than the governor’s race, in which Schwarzenegger has maintained a steady lead over state Treasurer Phil Angelides.

The bond issues are ahead in the polls, but by dwindling margins. “None of these measures are in a safety zone,” said Mark Baldassare, research director for the Public Policy Institute of California. Mervin Field, who has been polling in California for more than half a century, holds a similar view. “It will take a formidable campaign for any of these initiatives to win,” he said.


Behind the scenes there is grumbling among supporters that Let’s Rebuild California, the bipartisan committee promoting the bonds, has been slow to get off the mark with its planned $15-million campaign. “Let’s hope we haven’t waited too long,” one supporter of the measure said privately last week.

To sell the package, Let’s Rebuild California must overcome voter wariness about government, a daunting task. A Public Policy Institute survey released Wednesday showed that two out of three Californians distrust government to make the right decisions and that six out of 10 disapprove of the Legislature. It is a sign of the times that Schwarzenegger’s campaign team is elated with his approval rating, although it is only 50%, with 42% disapproving. But it’s an open question as to whether the governor is popular enough to sell the bonds. Baldassare believes that Schwarzenegger’s campaigning will be crucial because he is popular with rank-and-file Republicans, a majority of whom oppose the bond package, according to the Public Policy Institute poll.

Taken together, the bond measures are an attempt to return to the halcyon decades of 1950-1970, in which an emergent California invested huge sums in education, water and transportation. The groundwork for this expansion was done in the three terms of Republican Gov. Earl Warren and continued by his successor, Republican Goodwin Knight. It came to fruition during the eight years (1959-67) in which Democrat Edmund G. “Pat” Brown was governor. The touchstone achievement of the era was the State Water Project, which Brown persuaded Californians to approve (by a narrow margin) in 1960. Its then-record price tag of $1.75 billion would be nearly $12 billion in today’s dollars.

Proposition 1B, the largest single measure in this year’s bond package, would raise $19.9 billion for a potpourri of transportation projects, including road-building, mass transit and the improvement of security at ports.

The other measures also have multiple goals. Proposition 1C would provide $2.85 billion for housing projects, including shelters for homeless people and battered women. Proposition 1D would supply $10.4 billion for school construction from kindergarten through higher education. Proposition 1E would devote $4.1 billion for various flood control projects, including levee repair in the Sacramento River Delta system, where an earthquake could imperil drinking water supplies for much of Southern California.

The fifth bond, Proposition 84, is a grab bag of flood control, conservation and safe drinking water projects with a $5.4-billion price tag. Environmentalists circulated petitions to put it on the ballot. Although the governor and leading Democrats have endorsed Proposition 84, it trails in the recent Public Policy Institute poll.


The size and scope of the measures could alienate voters. Baldassare found that nearly six in 10 voters thought the bond issues were a good idea but that $42.7 billion was too much money.

Ballot clutter is also a potential obstacle. “The problem is to focus the attention of voters on these bond issues in a year when there are 13 measures on the ballot and a governor’s race,” said William Hauck, president of the California Business Roundtable, which supports the bond issues.

Competing with the bond measures for television advertising and voter attention are such hot-button issues as Proposition 87, an initiative to tax oil production, and Proposition 90, which would limit the condemnation powers of the state and local governments. The long ballot will also include congressional and legislative races and contests for other statewide offices.

But it is the bond issues that will have the greatest effect on California. Leon Panetta of the Monterey-based Panetta Institute for Public Policy believes that we have become conditioned to believing that we can have social services without paying for them.

“We’ve gone through 25 years of political posturing,” said Panetta, a former House member and former White House chief of staff. “Proposition 13 [the 1978 tax limitation initiative] created a myth in California that we could remain a first-rate state with a third-rate budget. The question is whether reality has sunk in.”

Recent elections are not encouraging harbingers. Northern California voters rejected five proposals in June to upgrade local transportation. At the same time, the only bond issue on the statewide ballot -- a relatively modest proposal of $600 million for libraries -- lost after leading in the polls. Field, the pollster, noted that bond issues often start out with a heavy “yes” vote that erodes by election day.


Baldassare’s poll last week found all of the measures except Proposition 84 leading but not by commanding margins. The last Field Poll, in late July, found all the measures except Proposition 1C ahead but with reduced margins from a May survey.

Panetta believes that the entire package faces “an uphill fight” in the current climate of voter skepticism. Campaign promoters for the measures acknowledge as much. “We’ll need to make a substantial effort to win and to do this in a fairly cluttered environment,” said Paul Hefner, spokesman for the consulting firm that is managing the bond campaign.

Those who would like to see California return to the days when government led the way can only hope that this campaign is not too little, too late.