Political Notebook

Dan Walters: School bonds highlight California’s competing priorities

A high-stakes political poker game is being played in the backrooms of the Capitol over the seemingly motherhood-and-apple-pie issue of building and renovating schools.

Business groups, construction unions and school districts, calling themselves Californians for Quality Schools, propose a $9 billion school bond issue for the November ballot, contending that funds from the last bond measure, passed in 2006, are virtually exhausted, leaving a $2 billion backlog.

Exhaustion could trigger a 1998-vintage law and allow local governments to sharply increase school building fees on residential and commercial projects, potentially adding billions of dollars to developers’ costs. Staving off that threat is why the Building Industry Association is one of the bond issue’s chief backers.

Public employee labor unions such the powerful California Teachers Association, which would ordinarily back a school bond, are worried that its presence on the November ballot could undermine their efforts to persuade voters to extend temporary income taxes on the wealthy, another multibillion-dollar issue.

Union-friendly legislative leaders have mounted a somewhat desperate effort to write a smaller bond, something in the $2 billion-to-$4 billion range, for the June ballot to head off the November measure.

However, Gov. Jerry Brown dislikes the decades-long practice of the state borrowing bond money for local school projects, saying it’s “overly complex” and “creates an incentive for districts to build new schools when they already have the capacity to absorb enrollment growth.”

Brown also has many objections to how bond money is allocated, such as a first-come, first-served system he says gives wealthy districts an unfair advantage and a lack of flexibility “to design school facility plans to reflect local needs.”

“The inherent problems with the current program, along with the billions of dollars in long-term liabilities created by the issuance of state debt, is no longer sustainable,” the governor pointedly says in his new budget.

Brown’s complaints that the proposed $9 billion bond fails to make needed reforms imply that he might throw his weight – and perhaps his hefty campaign war chest – against it.

So there we have it, what Brown might call a “yeasty mixture” of conflicting priorities.

Writing a mini-bond measure that would satisfy the Californians for Quality Schools coalition, contain the reforms that Brown says he wants – but has yet to specify – and get two-thirds legislative votes also faces a looming deadline.

State election officials say legislators have until mid-February to act unless they want to go to the expense of printing a supplemental ballot pamphlet, which has been done in the past but which also stains the Legislature’s already dismal reputation for timely action.

The situation is very fluid, but Brown shows no signs of intervening to forge a compromise, and in his absence it’s very unlikely to happen.

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