State Issues

Getting sneaky with voter approved school bonds

A budget rider bill includes 17 sneaky words that would allow school districts to obscure the true costs of construction bonds and their impact on property taxes.
A budget rider bill includes 17 sneaky words that would allow school districts to obscure the true costs of construction bonds and their impact on property taxes. AP

Senate Bill 863 is a double dose of sneakiness – combining, in just 17 words, two separate efforts to block Californians from knowing what their elected officials are doing.

First, it continues the unseemly practice of misusing “budget trailer bills” for purposes unrelated to the budget. When voters decreed a few years back that the state budget no longer needed a two-thirds legislative vote to pass, they unwittingly applied that looser standard to those ancillary measures that traditionally were written to implement the budget’s appropriations.

Since the budget and its trailer bills take effect immediately upon being signed by the governor, and therefore are immune to a challenge by referendum, it was an invitation for governors and legislators to load them up with decrees unrelated to the budget.

Dozens of trailer bills are drafted only a few days, and sometimes a few hours, before their enactment. Because they are exempt from the usual legislative procedures, such as waiting periods and committee hearings, they have become vehicles for doing things on the sly.

It’s why some folks around the Capitol call them “mushroom bills,” sprouting in the dark, fertilized with manure.

In this case, Senate Bill 863 suspends, for two years, legislation that passed in 2017 requiring local government and school bond measures to give voters some straightforward information about their financial effects.

Under SB 863, voters had to be told, among other things, about the property tax rates that would be required to service any proposed bond, how many years the additional taxes would be in effect and how much money they would raise every year.

Local officials didn’t like the new transparency requirements, complaining they were too difficult to implement. Their much more likely motive is that they feared voters would reject bonds if their full costs were revealed.

The author of the 2017 legislation, Assemblyman Jay Obernolte, a Big Bear Lake Republican, heard the complaints and introduced another bill to modify the required disclosures. But later, having been informed via this column that bond measures placed on this month’s primary election ballot largely complied with his law, he dropped the second bill as unnecessary.

But opponents of bond transparency still wanted a waiver. That’s where Senate Bill 863 comes into play. This week, just a few days before the budget vote, it was amended to include a two-year suspension of Obernolte’s requirement to tell voters the financial facts about the bond issues they are being asked to approve.

Its 17 pertinent words are: “This subdivision does not apply to a measure authorizing the issuance of bonds until July 1, 2020.”

Though Obernolte is vice chairman of the Assembly Budget Committee, his spokeswoman said the language was inserted into SB 863 by the majority Democrats without his knowledge.

If enacted, it would take effect just in time for a new crop of local bond issues on the November ballot. Voters would be kept in the dark about how their property taxes would be affected in obvious hopes they would be more willing to approve the bonds.

Capitol politicians should be ashamed of their double-barreled sneakiness, but that’s simply not in their DNA.

Dan Walters writes on matters of statewide significance for CALmatters, a public-interest journalism organization. Go to calmatters.org/commentary.

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