By Mark Baldassare, senior fellow, Public Policy Institute of California
This opinion article appeared in the Sacramento Bee on November 14, 1999
On November 2, 25 local school general obligation bond measures appeared on ballots throughout the state. Every one of them received the support of a simple majority (50 percent plus one) of voters, but 10 did not pass because they failed to obtain a super-majority, or two-thirds, vote, as required by state law. That could all change next year. If voters approve the "School Facilities Bonds - Local Majority Vote" initiative on the March primary ballot, school districts will be able to pass local school bonds with a simple majority vote of the electorate.
This initiative currently enjoys a huge lead in the polls, as voters have become more inclined to ante up when it comes to fixing public schools. The latest statewide survey by the Public Policy Institute of California shows that three in four likely voters would support the "Local Majority Vote" initiative if the March primary were held today.
The recent election offers solid evidence that voters have warmed to the notion of providing schools with additional resources. About 60 percent of all local school bonds statewide, including general obligation bonds to fund construction and modernization, reached the super-majority threshold this year - a higher success rate than last year. Between 1988 and 1998, only about half of all local school bonds in general and primary elections won a two-thirds majority, according to Kim Rueben at the Public Policy Institute of California.
In the Sacramento area, three of the four local school bonds on recent special election ballots were winners. Those that passed enjoyed over 75 percent support, while the one that failed received 62 percent. Even Orange County voters passed both of the school bonds on their local ballots. Just a year ago, the normally parsimonious voters in that bellwether conservative region passed a local school bond for the first time in two decades.
These results show that public concern about schools is currently a powerful force at the ballot box. It all started a year ago, when voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition 1A - a 9.2 billion school bond that was the largest in state history. Buoyed by the big victory, supporters decided to push Proposition 26, the "Local Majority Vote," for the March 2000 ballot.
The idea of easing restrictions on local school bond votes has had its proponents for some time. Many policymakers argue that a simple majority of local voters should be able to decide what funds are needed to improve their local schools. Until recently, however, the issue has been a non-starter with the state’s voters, who are required to approve such a change. The last attempt - Proposition 170, "The Schools Majority Vote" - was turned down by 69 percent of the voters in a 1993 special election.
But that was then; this is now. Not only is the economic mood of the state more optimistic and generous, but our surveys also show that Californians remain singly focused on education as the most pressing policy concern facing the state. Although the governor and state Legislature took steps to reform education policy and increase school funding this year, two in three residents still believe that the state is shortchanging the public schools. Most important, only one in six say they are "very satisfied" with how their local schools are faring.
Despite the growing support for Proposition 26, many anti-tax groups say they will fight the initiative, which they see as a threat to the legacy of Proposition 13, the Jarvis-Gann measure.
In reality, the super-majority vote for local school bonds has nothing to do with the famous 1978 tax revolt measure. Rather, the two-thirds vote requirement for local borrowing over $300,000 was added to the state constitution back in 1879, in an effort to curb the "borrow and spend" policies of local government officials. A century later, state voters upped the ante with the passage of Jarvis-Gann, which placed further restrictions on local governments by requiring a two-thirds vote for any "special" local tax increases, including those imposed by local school districts.
So, for the past 20 years, whenever local school boards needed to raise money to build or repair schools, they had to get two-thirds approval for either bonds or property tax increases. As a result, according to our surveys, Californians say they now recognize that spending on public schools has fallen behind the national average and that current student performance is unacceptable.
One of the key arguments made by the supporters of the two-thirds rule is that it protects a minority of homeowners from having their property taxes increased by a majority of renters. But this reasoning flies in the face of reality.
In California, homeowners are already over-represented in the voting booth because they are more likely to be older, affluent, residentially stable, and citizens - all characteristics that are associated with a higher propensity to vote. According to our latest survey, two-thirds of all voters - and three-fourths of those most likely to turn out in local elections - are homeowners. In most localities, it is virtually impossible for renters to have enough votes to saddle homeowners with an unwanted property tax levy.
The opponents of the simple majority vote have other arguments in their arsenal. They will remind voters that their school bonds are not "free money," and that homeowners will pay higher property taxes if more local school bonds pass. Moreover, they will zero in on the argument that local school officials don’t deserve more school bond money because they have mismanaged existing school funds.
Some of these arguments do resonate with voters today - few Californians said they had "a lot" of confidence that their local school districts are spending money wisely. Nevertheless, most appear willing to end the super-majority vote anyway.
While the growing support for school bonds and simple majorities may raise a red flag for anti-tax crusaders, these options are simply seen by state voters as the least costly and most effective methods of supporting their top policy priority – revitalizing their schools. At least for the moment, Californians appear willing to put their wallets where their worries are.