The System Is Skewed to Pass Bond Measures (Section 7 of 9)
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The System Is Skewed to Pass Bond Measures
Considering the advantages that supporters have in preparing and campaigning for a bond measure, perhaps it’s noteworthy that voters reject about 20% of local bond measures for educational construction. At every stage of the process, interests that will benefit from bond sales can take advantage of a system that favors passage of a bond measure. Some issues of concern include use of public funds to develop campaigns to pass bond measures, significant political contributions to campaigns from interests likely to benefit from construction, involvement of college foundations as intermediaries for campaign contributions, and conflicts of interest and alleged pay-to-play contracts.
It’s Not “Tough” Anymore to Pass Local Bond Measures for School and College Districts
Voters in 2000 who read the ballot argument in favor of Proposition 39 would have seen supporters claim that it would “require bonds to be passed by a tough 55% super-majority vote.” Perhaps a 55% threshold could be described as “tough” compared to approval by a simple majority of 50% plus one, but it certainly hasn’t meant passage is difficult to achieve in practice. Four out of five bond measures proposed under the criteria of Proposition 39 win voter approval. (See Section 3 for more information.)
Supporters might argue that the 80% voter approval rate for construction bond measures qualified under Proposition 39 simply reflects the view of a substantial percentage of Californians that school and community college districts need new and modernized facilities. But these views don’t develop in a vacuum.
An industry of campaign consultants helps educational districts to convince voters to approve bond measures. They have developed a formula that generally results in victory. Here are some of the most obvious tactics used to achieve that success rate of 80 percent.
Using Public Funds to Hire a Consultant for Voter Research That Is Subsequently Useful in the Election Campaign to Pass the Bond Measure
Many Californians would be astonished to learn that school and community college districts can use funds from their operating budget to develop a strategy to pass a bond measure. Yet this practice is common — and legal.
California law prohibits community college districts and K-12 school districts from using public funds or resources to campaign in support or opposition to bond measures. Education Code Section 7054 states “No school district or community college district funds, services, supplies, or equipment shall be used for the purpose of urging the support or defeat of any ballot measure…”
However, these same public resources CAN be used to provide information to the public about the possible effects of any bond issue or other ballot measure, as long as that information constitutes a fair and impartial presentation of relevant facts to aid the electorate in reaching an informed judgment regarding the bond issue or ballot measure.
A 2005 opinion from California Attorney General Bill Lockyer confirmed that it is legal for a college district (and a school district) to use district funds to hire a consultant to conduct surveys and establish focus groups to assess the following important conditions for a campaign:
- The potential support and opposition to a bond measure, by gathering information and evaluating the potential for the adoption of a bond measure by the electorate.
- The public’s awareness of the district’s financial needs.
- The overall feasibility of developing a bond measure that could win voter approval.
According to the Attorney General, this is not “partisan campaigning.”
Of course, this professional research and analysis — paid for by taxpayers — puts a school or college district at a significant advantage for a bond measure campaign. Consultants determine which words and arguments are most effective in motivating various demographic groups in the district to vote for a bond measure. Consultants also determine which arguments would be most effective for opponents of a bond measure and how the school district can neutralize those arguments.
Further research is needed to reveal how often a “feasibility study” concludes that a bond measure is not “feasible.” Considering that the firm evaluating the feasibility of a bond measure may often be seeking future contracts with the district or the campaign committee, there may be a conscious or subconscious inclination to manipulate the survey questions or the results to obtain a deceptively positive recommendation. In his book Win Win: An Insider’s Guide to School Bonds, Dale Scott of Dale Scott & Company cites a case in which he suspects a consulting firm had self-interested motivations when it recommended that a school board place a bond measure on a June primary ballot rather than a November presidential ballot with an apparent better chance of passage. Voters rejected the bond measure.
Considering that voters approve about 80% of educational bond measures at the 55% voter approval threshold, cynics would argue the real purpose of surveys isn’t to determine “feasibility” but to use public funds to develop election campaign strategy. Based on promotional material of firms that specialize in feasibility studies for bond measures, the argument is valid.
Here’s an excerpt from a consulting firm’s website about how information from taxpayer-funded surveys can be used to improve the chance of election victory:
…an initial baseline survey can determine the overall feasibility and voter acceptance of a bond or parcel tax measure at different funding levels. It can test how voters respond to different versions of the ballot title and summary, and – through analysis of respondent demographics and past voting patterns – it can help determine which election calendar promises the greatest likelihood of success. The same survey can also determine the effectiveness of the rationales and arguments that might be offered for and against a bond or parcel tax measure, thus helping shape the communications themes that will explain how the measure addresses voters’ concerns… works with its clients to perfect ballot language and voter pamphlet arguments, using our empirical data to guide our advice.
A second example:
Public opinion research is critical to packaging a revenue measure for success. School districts can maximize the dollars that they raise through general obligation bonds, Proposition 39 bonds, and parcel taxes by collecting pertinent voter opinion data and using this information to solicit support. can help maximize your measure’s potential by providing accurate and reliable results…We provide both qualitative and quantitative research services in the following areas:
• Assessing baseline support for revenue measures
• Identifying the highest achievable tax threshold and total bond amounts
• Determining the arguments and features of the measure that will increase support
• Evaluating the need and content for a public information campaign
• Determining the best election in which to place the measure on the ballot
• Packaging a measure for success
A third example:
understands that the research can be the first step not only in determining the feasibility of a potential revenue measure, but also in bringing together the various stakeholders and constituencies that will need to be involved and supportive in order for any ballot measure to be successful. We know that the issues facing the District do not exist in a vacuum and must be put into the context of the current political and cultural environment in the District. The voter opinion survey presents the District with an opportunity to hear from the administration, teachers, staff, Board, and other community stakeholders about their priorities. Involving key stakeholders in the research design leads to confidence in the research findings and helps ensure that the parties who are integral to a ballot measure’s success are on board and on the same page.
Even items scheduled on board meeting agendas to hire the consultant and then to review the survey results create a positive news opportunity for bond measure proponents. At this early stage in the process, potential opponents usually have not emerged to present a different perspective. And a finding of measurable strong support portrays a bond measure as something already broadly supported by community, thus convincing undecided individuals and organizations that the bond measure is worthy of support and discouraging individuals and organizations that might be inclined to oppose it.
Public Resources Used to Win a Bond Measure
A consulting firm for school bond measures has developed a “Finance Measure Checklist for Success” (see Tables 14 and 15) that outlines five steps for victory. A school district can fund and coordinate four of the five steps with public resources. Only the fifth and final step requires the district to “step away” from explicit political campaigning and pass primary responsibility to a separate political entity, such as a Political Action Committee.
By the time the “partisan campaign” begins, the community college district or K-12 school district has spent a year or longer obtaining polling data, alerting voters directly and through the news media to the need for school construction, and refining campaign themes and messages. A taxpayer-funded effort to pass it has been well underway, without a cent of money raised or spent by a campaign committee. Already the proponents have an advantage over any opposition to the bond measure.
Comparing the Election Campaigns of Supporters and Opponents
There is an existing network of professional political consultants who are experienced in establishing a campaign committee, collecting corporate campaign contributions, and communicating with voters using an effective message developed from the results of the district’s feasibility study. Political campaigning is a business, and fierce competition forces consulting firms to build and maintain a reputation for winning. Meanwhile, professional campaign vendors are ready to design, print, and mail campaign material. Endorsements can be quickly obtained from political, business, and community leaders. Participants in phone banks and precinct walkers can be recruited and even paid if a financial incentive is necessary.
In addition, potential district contractors are able to promote school bond measures through California’s Coalition for Adequate School Housing (C.A.S.H.), whose membership “contains over 1,500 school districts, county offices and private sector businesses, including architects, attorneys, consultants, construction managers, financial institutions, modular building manufacturers, contractors, developers, and others that are in the school facilities industry…C.A.S.H. has sponsored or supported over $52 billion in statewide school bonds to build and/or modernize thousands of schools.”
Contrast this to the typical opposition to a bond measure. Often there aren’t any formal opponents. Sometimes the opposition consists of a few individuals known in the community as gadflies or anti-tax or libertarian activists. Opposition can gain more credibility if there is an existing local community or taxpayer organization that provides a formal forum for fiscal critics to meet and strategize. That organization is almost always more effective if it employs full-time professional staff responsible to a board of directors.
In rare cases there is a well-funded opposition campaign backed by local business leaders and interest groups and run by professional political consultants. One example of this was opposition to Measure Z for the San Diego Unified School District in the November 2012 election.
Potential opponents must regularly monitor local news sources and the meeting agendas of local educational districts to know when an elected governing board is considering a bond measure and passes a resolution putting a bond measure on the ballot. Sometimes the board does this immediately before the legal deadline, thus providing very little time for opponents to respond before the election.
Concerned parties must meet to consider the bond measure and determine an appropriate position. Someone needs to know or obtain the various laws concerning the submission of an opposing argument in the ballot pamphlet, and someone needs to write the opposing argument and go through the process of getting group approval of the text. It needs to be submitted on time and in compliance with often-technical legal requirements. A few people in the organization must volunteer to write commentaries or letters to the editor of the local newspaper, and then follow through with the promise. Some people may chip in some money from their small businesses or personal savings to order some lawn signs, which have to be designed, approved, printed, and distributed.
Nonetheless, bond measures do fail almost 20% of the time despite the organizational and financial advantages of supporters. A 2003 report from the Public Policy Institute of California noted that big urban school districts in the San Francisco Bay Area and the Los Angeles area with high numbers of registered Democrat voters tended to propose more bond measures and win voter approval of those bond measures more often that smaller districts in rural areas, such as the Central Valley. This pattern appears to continue through 2014.
In some large urban school districts in California, especially in the San Francisco Bay Area, bond measures always win easily and opposition seems futile. As long as these districts don’t propose bonds too frequently, they rarely have to worry about opposition.
Top Donors Are Current or Potential Contractors for Finance and Construction
Generally, the public has poor access to records concerning the contributions to and expenditures of campaigns to pass bond measures. In some counties the campaign forms must be obtained in person and are provided as photocopies. Other counties have electronic databases that simply link to scanned documents. Trying to compile or analyze campaign finance patterns would be a tedious undertaking.
Nevertheless, compilations of contributors to four campaigns to pass five bond measures in November 2012 suggest that what is commonly assumed is accurate: these campaigns are mostly funded by companies likely to earn money from the proceeds of those bond sales.
Community College Foundations Entangled in Controversy
A 2005 opinion of the California Attorney General (also referenced above in relation to bond underwriters and campaigns) determined that a community college district’s auxiliary organizations (such as foundations and student body associations) are legally able to contribute their own privately raised funds to a political action committee established specifically to advocate voter approval of a bond measure. It is routine to see community college foundations contributing to bond campaigns. Like any 501(c)3 non-profit, college foundations are permitted to spend up to 20% of expenditures for influencing legislation, and that includes bond measures.
Controversy arose about this practice in 2004 after the Sierra College Foundation contributed about $100,000 to three bond measure campaigns for the Sierra Community College District. Neither the Political Action Committees nor the Sierra College Foundation reported the contributions to the California Fair Political Practices Commission.
At least two board members alleged that the college president, who estimated making 40 presentations to groups of prospective donors, had tried to hide the identities of contributors to the bond measure campaigns (including architects and engineering firms) using the Foundation as an intermediary. These board members also believed that people interested in contributing to the bond campaign were advised to make their contributions to the Foundation instead of the bond measure campaign committee in order to benefit from a tax deduction. The Placer County Civil Grand Jury ended up concluding there wasn’t any reliable evidence to support these accusations against the college president, but the incident exposed some of the potential problems with college foundations acting as a intermediary to fund campaigns to pass bond measures.
Alleged “Pay-to-Play” by Some Bond Underwriters Gets Attention
In the spring of 2012, there was a flurry of news media attention about some bond underwriters making contributions to campaigns for bond measures and subsequently making money through issuance fees as the underwriter for the bond sales. The news article that broke the story reported the following:
Leading financial firms over the past five years donated $1.8 million to successful school bond measures in California, and in almost every instance, school district officials hired those same underwriters to sell the bonds for a profit, a California Watch review has found. The practice is especially pronounced in California, where underwriters gave 155 political contributions since 2007 to successful bond campaigns for school construction and repairs.
Under an amendment to Rule G-37, adopted in 2010, the Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board (MSRB) requires each broker, dealer or municipal securities dealer to send a form quarterly to the MSRB reporting their contributions to bond ballot campaigns if those contributions exceeded $250. These contributions do not prohibit brokers from doing business with the entity proposing the bond measure, but the reporting requirements allow the public to identify these contributions as part of any effort to cross-reference them with contracts. Other rules prohibit brokers from doing business with entities if they have made campaign contributions to entity officials who make decisions related to selecting brokers for bond issues.
In 2009, the MSRB considered toughening Rule G-37 to prohibit brokers from doing business with government entities if those brokers contributed to campaigns to pass bond measures proposed by those government entities. California was cited as a particularly notorious location for the appearance of “pay-to-play” relationships. In the end, the MSRB declined to change the rule, citing constitutional First Amendment concerns.
The Bond Buyer reviewed broker contributions to 2010 campaigns to pass bond measures in California and identified “a nearly perfect correlation between broker-dealer contributions to California school bond efforts in 2010 and their underwriting subsequent bond sales.” A spokesperson for California State Treasurer Bill Lockyer responded to the review: “…it is probably time to end the days when underwriters, bond counsels or financial advisors fund, manage or provide other key support for local bond campaigns, then get paid to do work on the bond sales.” In 2013, the Los Angeles County Treasurer and Tax Collector Mark Saladino adopted “a complete ban on cash and in-kind contributions from all firms in our underwriter pool starting no later than when we renew our pool for another year in January 2014.”
“Opinion No. 04-211,” Legal Opinions of the Attorney General, April 5, 2011, accessed June 28, 2015, oag.ca.gov/system/files/opinions/pdfs/04-211.pdf
Win Win: An Insider’s Guide to School Bonds, Dale Scott & Company, accessed June 28, 2015, www.dalescott.com/dscpublishing
“School District Services,” Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates (FM3), accessed June 28, 2015, www.fm3research.com/services/School_District_Services
“Public Opinion Research for Today’s School Districts,” Godbe Research, accessed June 28, 2015, www.godberesearch.com/level2/pdf/School_BR_2006.pdf
“Approve TBWB Strategies/EMC Research Consulting Proposal to Conduct a Parcel Tax Feasibility Study (Phase 1 Only),” Soquel Union Elementary School District November 7, 2012, accessed June 28, 2015, www.soqueldo.santacruz.k12.ca.us/board_agendas/board_packet110712.pdf
“Finance Measure Checklist for Success,” Lew Edwards Group, accessed June 28, 2015, www.lewedwardsgroup.com/services/finance-checklist.html
California’s Coalition for Adequate School Housing (C.A.S.H.) www.cashnet.org
“Tax Group to Oppose San Diego School Bonds,” San Diego Union-Tribune, September 5, 2012, accessed June 28, 2015, www.utsandiego.com/news/2012/sep/05/tax-group-to-oppose-prop-z/
“Fiscal Effects of Voter Approval Requirements on Local Governments,” Public Policy Institute of California, January 27, 2003, accessed June 28, 2015, www.ppic.org/content/pubs/report/R_103KRR.pdf
Tables of contributors to campaigns to pass bond measures in the November 2012 election for Sacramento City Unified School District (Measures Q and R), Solano Community College District (Measure Q), West Contra Costa Unified School District (Measure E), and San Diego Unified School District (Measure Z) are provided on various posts of www.LaborIssuesSolutions.com
“Opinion No. 04-211,” Legal Opinions of the Attorney General, April 5, 2005, accessed June 28, 2015, oag.ca.gov/system/files/opinions/pdfs/04-211.pdf
“Final Report: Refutation of Trustee’s Charges Against Former Sierra College President,” Placer County Civil Grand Jury, March 21, 2006, accessed June 28, 2015, www.placer.courts.ca.gov/grandjury/2005-2006/2005-2006-gjfinalreport.pdf
With Campaign Donations, Bond Underwriters Also Secure Contracts,” California Watch, May 12, 2015, accessed June 28, 2015, californiawatch.org/money-and-politics/campaign-donations-bond-underwriters-also-secure-contracts-16032
“Rule G-37: Political Contributions and Prohibitions on Municipal Securities Business,” Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board, accessed June 28, 2015, www.msrb.org/Rules-and-Interpretations/MSRB-Rules/General/Rule-G-37.aspx
“Brokers’ Gifts That Keep Giving,” The Bond Buyer, January 13, 2012, accessed June 28, 2015, www.bondbuyer.com/issues/121_10/california-broker-dealer-contributions-school-bond-issue-1035266-1.html
“Proposed Underwriter Pool Changes” Los Angeles County Treasurer and Tax Collector, August 8, 2013, accessed June 28, 2015, http://ttc.lacounty.gov/proptax/docs/Underwriter%20Pool%20Memo.pdf