No on 51

Proposition 51 is a bond measure to raise money for the use of the Leroy F. Greene School Construction program, which has traditionally used bond money to pay for school construction and remodeling, at the primary, secondary, and post-secondary levels. It is the first such measure to appear on the ballot in California since Proposition 1D (in 2006); unlike previous measures, it was placed on the ballot by a voter initiative drive rather than by a vote of the legislature.

As a bond measure, it shares the normal features of bond measures in California: (a) money is placed in a seperate account, but (b) the seperate account can borrow from the general fund and repay from the sale of the bonds; (b) taxes are increased to cover the cost of interest and repayment; (c) bonds can be refunded; (d) money is continuously appropriated to the fund for the purpose of paying the principal and interest, and from the fund for the purpose of paying for what the bond is supposed to pay for; (e) money spent on repayment and interest, and the money spent after being raised by the bond sale, are above and beyond the state appropriation limit.

Proposition 51 authorizes the sale of $9 billion in bonds, the proceeds of which will be spent: $3 billion for construction of new K-12 facilities, $3 billion for modernization of new K-12 facilities, $500 million for “career technical education facilities”, $500 million for “charter school facilities”, and $2 billion for community college facilities.

The expenditures are to be carried out according to the procedures established in a system which has been around for decades; broadly speaking, the program provides *matching funding* for projects approved by local districts, witha priority basis established by rules that I don’t understand and which aren’t laid out in this (or any other similar that I can find) measure. (Sadly, the analysis by the legislative analyst, http://elections.cdn.sos.ca.gov//statewide-elections/2016-general/prop-51-leg-analysis.pdf, is not of assistance here).

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When thinking about this measure, it seems to me, the standard arguments about bond measures apply. Bond measures are good, economically speaking, when they are used to fund long-term capital investments whose expected lifespan is at least as long as the repayment period; generally speaking, that’s satisfied by school bonds.

It’s probably true that, as the rebuttal to the argument in favor (http://elections.cdn.sos.ca.gov//statewide-elections/2016-general/prop-51-rebut-arg-in-favor.pdf) claims, the measure will allow some of the funds to be spent on equipment with a 10-year “average useful life”, which is *bad* in a thirty-year bond. It seems inevitable that school “modernization” would include bringing technology into the classroom, and computer tech has a short useful life; this is a real problem for schools in general, and it deserves a solution targeted specifically at it (like, for example, a tax on the sale of tech products, the proceeds of which go to a fund that matches local district spending to purchase said products). But it’s not clear *how much* of the money in question could be used that way, and it seems likely that the bulk of the money is going to be spent on long-term capital investment.

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That said, looking closely at the initiative text (http://elections.cdn.sos.ca.gov/statewide-elections/2016-general/prop-51-text.pdf) and comparing it to the text of the last statewide school bond initiative (http://elections.cdn.sos.ca.gov/statewide-elections/2016-general/prop-51-text.pdf) makes me seriously concerned.

On the one hand, Prop 51 is clearly very closely modeled on previous bond measures, including adopting some very odd drafting peculiarities (for example: section 1011145 bundles the ‘the committee will decide how to spend this money’ and the ‘there is a tax imposed to pay for this’ provisions of the initiative in a way which makes no actual semantic sense, but which mirrors section 10135 in Proposition 1D). In many ways it seems like it’s a cut and paste job with some tweaks and modifications – albeit done much more sloppily (section 101149 merges the ‘refunding bonds can be sold’ and the ‘this is exempt from the appropriations limit’ clauses, which makes no semantic sense and is *not* merely a reproduction of the drafting errors in the preceding law).

On the other hand, there is a significant and substantial differences.

Education Code Section 101001, as created by Proposition 1D, clearly calls out that any statutes referenced by the proposition are to be interpreted *as amended*. But Education Code Section 107070.41, as added by Proposition 51, says that the board is to transfer money based upon the procedures in place in the education code as of January 1, 2015.

Similarly, section 101121 (as created by Proposition 51) requires the use of the procedures in place on January 1, 2015.

Why?

It’s not clear.

I don’t follow education politics enough to know whether this arises from an abundance of caution and fear that the legislature will somehow thwart the will of the people, or whether there is some specific reform being avoided. I have a general *skepticism*, though, which says it’s a bad idea to lock in the procedures of a year ago and prevent the adoption of improvement from the future; that’s *rarely* a recipe for success.

I could imagine circumstances in which I’d vote for this bond measure even despite such a perplexing, ossifying clause. But in this case my willingness to do so is undermined by the other major way this is different: normally these bond measures are put on the ballot *by the legislature*, but this one wasn’t. Has the legislature suddenly become blind to the needs of the schools? Or is something else going on?

The cloud of uncertainty *that* difference creates in my mind, plus the cloud of uncertainty created by the wierd “lock 2015 in place” provision, is causing me to lean *against* this bond measure. *Something* isn’t quite right, and if there’s a real crisis in school construction funding, the legislature can put a measure on the next ballot.

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