EDITORIAL: Governor should let voters decide how to help veterans

Not many veterans are seeking cut-rate state loans to buy houses, but homeless vets need all the help they can get. California should get its funding in line with that reality.

Gov. Jerry Brown can take a crucial step in that direction by signing Assembly Bill 639, which would let voters decide next June whether to redirect bond money to build affordable housing for homeless and low-income veterans.

An estimated 19,000 veterans in California are homeless, about one-fourth of the country's entire homeless vet population. There's also a danger that the number could grow as the military demobilizes with the end of the Afghanistan war.

While the state and federal governments have a goal to end homelessness among veterans by the end of 2015, the state doesn't offer any housing programs specifically aimed at them. Money is fast running out for the state's affordable housing initiatives in general.

Meanwhile, money for veterans home loans is sitting unused.

While the program has assisted more than 420,000 veterans in buying single-family houses, condominiums and farms since it was established in 1921, interest has plummeted over the last decade, largely because vets can get conventional mortgages at equally low interest rates. In 2003, more than 1,100 new loans were issued; in 2012, there were only about 100.

The most recent source of home loan money is Proposition 12, approved by voters in 2008 to authorize $900 million in bonds. Because so few loans have been taken out, none of those bonds has been issued. Another $230 million in bonding authority is left over from a similar 2000 ballot measure.

Under AB 639, authored by Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez, $600 million of the Prop. 12 bonding authority would be shifted to help build apartments and transitional housing for vets -- if voters give their consent.

The downside is that if all the money is borrowed, it would cost the state treasury $25 million a year in repayments. (The home loan bonds are repaid by the mortgage payments.) Just coming out of a budget crisis, adding to the state's debt must be carefully considered.

Veterans groups and other bill proponents argue, however, that the state's cost would be more than offset over the long run by taxes paid by productive veterans who will require fewer public services and stay out of jail and off the streets. The plan is to link veterans with mental health counseling, substance abuse treatment, job training and other services.

Prop. 12, however well-intended, isn't really helping veterans. Voters should get the chance to change it so it will.