In an ideal world, there would be no need for this year’s Proposition 13, the only statewide measure voters will decide in the ongoing California primary election that culminates on the official March 3 Election Day.
But anyone who has visited a public school or a public charter school in the last few years knows this proposition is a must. Yes, some of the ballot arguments against it are correct, but they don’t override the pressing need for the $15 billion this measure would provide for school and college construction and renovation over the next few years.
Paint is peeling, plumbing is ancient and roofs are leaking in many, many schools and most local districts don’t have the budget to bring in the workers who could make repairs. Other districts use temporary classrooms – call them trailers – because their real buildings are overcrowded.
For sure, the ballot argument for a “no” vote is correct in saying this money won’t by itself “achieve a standard of excellence” in education. But voters can be certain of this: Children studying in decrepit buildings generally perform worse than kids in nicer facilities.
When a state panel made up largely of ethnic minority group teachers and college professors last summer submitted a proposed ethnic studies curriculum, it was anything but inclusive.
The same for students at colleges and universities, which would also get some of this money.
Give schools and colleges money to build what they need and there will be fewer excuses available for poor performance.
The nay-sayers, led by the anti-tax Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association and its articulate president Jon Coupal, are also correct that in the best of all worlds, the repairs and buildings to be financed by Proposition 13 would be paid for as the work is done, using some of the state’s current budget surplus of $21 billion or $22 billion (both figures appear in the official ballot pamphlet).
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But school buildings in California are traditionally financed with bonds. While the “no” argument correctly says the total cost of this bond including interest will top $27 billion over 35 years, with annual payments of almost $800 million, those payments won’t be nearly as burdensome in 2055 as they seem today, unless America experiences no inflation in coming decades.
But Coupal and friends are wrong when they imply that this measure’s backers deliberately tried to confuse voters by applying the same Proposition 13 tag to this measure that’s associated with the landmark property tax cutting 1978 initiative bearing the same number.
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“Don’t be confused by the deceptive title of this spending measure,” they warn. But it’s not deceptive. It’s just counting. Back in the 1990s, when ballot measures began getting numbers well above 200, state officials decided that each time the ballot measure count reached 100, it would automatically recycle back to 1. So it was that when state lawmakers in a bipartisan vote placed this measure on this ballot, the next number up was 13. Did they know this? Probably. Did they create the situation? No.
Coupal & Co. also claim higher levels of debt inevitably lead to higher taxes. They’re sort-of correct. That’s because the state normally covers about 60 percent of the cost of school projects it funds, with local districts paying the rest. They get that money by going to their own voters for an OK to levy higher property taxes. This will no doubt happen if the current Proposition 13 passes and its new money begins to flow. But no local tax increase can happen without a 55 percent supermajority vote of the locals.
The “no” side also may be literally correct when it says “not one cent…will be spent for direct instruction in school classrooms.” But what instruction does occur will hopefully take place in cleaner, safer, more modern environments where children are proven to learn better.
Several of the worst possible disasters that could affect California are hiding in plain sight.
But the money most likely will not go into the “wasteful money pits” the “no” side predicts, because of a clause limiting administrative costs to 5 percent of the total pot.
All of which means this measure deserves to pass, even if it’s not perfect. Voters should heed the old warning about not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.
Thomas D. Elias writes the syndicated California Focus column. He is author of the book, “The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It.”
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