By Hillel Aron
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That’s hardly an accident, says veteran ballot-measure warrior Ted Costa, of People’s Advocate in Sacramento. California ballot measures, Costa says, stop just short of lying. Instead, voters should be extremely wary of easily corruptible phrases that allow expenditures on “other projects” or “similar improvements” or “related issues.”
“My favorite is the ‘clean water’ bonds to ‘study’ the Bay Delta — and they are still studying,” Costa says. “A lot of these measures start out as worthy, and then a couple of state assemblymen get invited to attach crap, crap, crap — crap that’s counter to the intent.” Recalling Schwarzenegger’s 2005 promise to voters that $15 billion in bonds that year would end California’s chronic budget deficits, Costa says, “Arnold called it the ‘bond to end all bonds.’ Arnold lied — and you can quote me. I’m really pissed at him.”
This time, Costa points to Proposition 1A, the high-speed train measure, as one “doozy” that might even out-loophole the Housing Trust Fund. Predicts Costa: “Voters will never see a shovel of dirt turned.”
To be fair, the Housing Trust Fund is being used to finance several thousand affordable-housing apartment units and shelters in California. “We would not be building much of any affordable housing in California without these bond proceeds,” says the housing advocate.
But, as with other measures on the Nov. 4 ballot, the Housing Trust Fund’s quieter purpose was not to build the housing that dominates its ballot title. Before it became an omnibus package of purported social good, it was a classic Sacramento scheme to help enhance large private projects Senator Perata wanted — particularly in his own Oakland.
Perata had in mind a $1 billion bond measure to help developers defray the costs of big “in-fill” projects. It was made palatable by transforming it into a $2.85 billion trust fund jammed with capital help for low-income housing. Its fine print still contained hundreds of millions of dollars for “in fill,” $300 million for “transit-oriented development” including vague “other uses,” and $200 million for parks near “residential” — a line L.A. leaders are using to justify $30 million for that downtown park with fake shade.
One November 4 measure that sounds altruistic is Proposition 3. But it mostly benefits private, nonprofit* children’s hospitals that won a nearly identical modernization bond but spent the funds more quickly than promised. Prop. 3 is near the top of the ballot. Wilcox says that once voter sticker shock sets in, measures farther down the list get more scrutiny.
That could hurt Proposition 12, which is ironic. Providing for veteran’s home loans, it is the sole bond measure that will be paid back by its recipients, the veterans, not taxpayers.
With a probable recession unfolding, critics of ballot-box financing hope for a replay of the early 1990s — when voters rejected most measures. “California is mortgaging the grandkids otherwise,” says Wilcox, “apparently with no end in sight.”
*This paragraph was amended Nov. 3, 2008, to correct an error about the type of institutions that will benefit from the proposition: private, nonprofit hospitals.