They are overshadowed by one of the most tumultuous Presidential primary campaigns in decades, but California’s June 7th primary ballot has local tax and bond proposals in numbers that, in aggregate, ought to be generating vigorous public debate. Next week voters will be asked to approve 46 local bond measures totaling $6.18 billion in new debt, along with 52 local tax proposals. If history is any indication, more than 80% of them will pass.
Tax activists and politicians who brand themselves as “tax fighters” often point to alarming levels of state government debt, along with state taxes that are among the highest in the nation – but when they do, they are calling attention to a surprisingly small fraction of the big picture. Because most of California’s taxes and borrowing are assessed and spent at the local level. A California Policy Center study from 2013 entitled “How Big Are California’s State and Local Governments Combined?,” using 2011 data, calculated direct state government spending at $54.0 billion. The same study calculated total local government spending at $311.1 billion, nearly six times as much. The numbers have changed over the past five years, but the proportions have remained the same.
California government borrowing follows the same pattern, as shown on the next table. Even if you don’t include the unfunded liabilities for pensions and retirement health coverage – amounts vary by several multiples depending on what return-on-investment assumptions are made – as can be seen, five years ago, the total state government bond debt was $132.6 billion, whereas the total local government bond debt was nearly twice as much at $250.3 billion.
School bond debt just keeps piling up at the local level. Because it only requires a 55% majority for approval, compared to two-thirds for most other forms of proposed government borrowing, it is the most likely to appear on the ballot, and the most likely to pass. As a 2015 California Policy Center study entitled “For the Kids – Comprehensive Review of California School Bonds” uncovered, on average, local voters have approved $10 billion in local school bond borrowing every year from 2001 through 2014. Is all of this necessary?
This year is on track to beat the average. Because these bond and tax proposals are usually concentrated on the November ballot, where they are more likely to be approved by general election voters. It is surprising to find $6.2 billion in proposed new borrowing on the ballot this June.
If you want to learn the details regarding the new taxes and bonds being voted on next week, refer to the document prepared every election by CalTax, “2016 Local Elections.” For example, you will see there are three new taxes proposed on marijuana, 20 new parcel tax proposals, 14 sales tax proposals, one hotel tax proposal, 4 utility tax proposals, 9 “miscellaneous” tax proposals, and one business tax proposal. Nearly all of these taxes are either extensions of “temporary” taxes that would otherwise be set to repeal, or tax increases, or completely new taxes. In only one case, in the Southern California city of Glendale, is a tax proposal on the ballot to repeal an existing utility tax.
The problem with repeals, or no votes of any type, is that the tax proposal just comes up again on the next election cycle. Eventually, almost all of them pass. In November 2014, as reported in the UnionWatch post “Final Results: 81% of Local Bonds Passed, 68% of Local Taxes Passed,” here’s what happened in that election: “Of the 118 local bonds, 96 were passed, and 22 were defeated. Of the 171 local tax proposals, 117 were passed, and 54 were defeated.”
If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.
There is an alternative to more taxes and more borrowing. To avoid new taxes, revise pension benefits for existing workers so that – just from now on – the retirement benefits accrue at the lower pre-1999 rates, which are financially sustainable without new taxes. Instead of new borrowing, return control of schools to principals and parents, instead of the teachers unions, a simple step that will yield positive educational outcomes that all the new school buildings in the world cannot hope to replicate.
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Ed Ring is the president of the California Policy Center.
“As the result of California Courts refusing to uphold the language of the High Speed Rail bonds, the opponents of any bond proposal, at either the state or local level, need only point to High-Speed Rail to remind voters that promises in a voter approved bond proposal are meaningless and unenforceable.”
– Jon Coupal, October 26, 2014, HJTA California Commentary
If that isn’t plain enough – here’s a restatement: California’s politicians can ask voters to approve bonds, announcing the funds will be used for a specific purpose, then they can turn around and do anything they want with the money. And while there’s been a lot of coverage and debate over big statewide bond votes, the real money is in the countless local bond issues that collectively now encumber California’s taxpayers with well over $250 billion in debt.
Over the past few weeks we’ve tried to point out that local tax increases – 166 of them on the November 4th ballot at last count, tend to be calibrated to raise an amount of new tax revenue that, in too many cases, are suspiciously equal to the amount that pension contributions are going to be raised over the next few years. For three detailed examples of how local tax increases will roughly equal the impending increases to required pension contributions, read about Stanton, Palo Alto, and Watsonville‘s local tax proposals. It is impossible to analyze them all.
As taxes increase, money remains fungible. More money, more options. They can say it’s for anything they want. And apparently, bonds are no better.
At last count, there are 118 local bond measures on the November ballot. And not including three school districts in Fresno County for which the researchers at CalTax are “awaiting more information,” these bonds, collectively, propose $12.4 billion in new debt for California taxpayers. All but six of these bond proposals (representing $112 million) are for schools. Refer to the list from CalTax to read a summary of what each of these bonds are for – “school improvements,” “replace leaky roofs,” “repair restrooms,” “repair gas/sewer lines,” “upgrade wiring,” “renovate classrooms,” “make repairs.”
To be fair, there are plenty of examples of new capital investment, “construct a new high school,” for example, but they represent a small fraction of the stated intents. On November 4th, Californians are being asked to borrow another $12.3 billion to shore up their public school system. They are being asked to pile another $12.3 billion onto over $250 billion of existing local government debt, along with additional hundreds of billions in unfunded retirement obligations for state and local government workers. They are being asked to borrow another $12.3 billion in order to do deferred maintenance. We are borrowing money to fix leaky roofs and repair restrooms and sewers. This is a scandal, because for the past 2-3 decades, California’s educational system has been ran for the benefit of unionized educators and unionized construction contractors who work in league with financial firms whose sales tactics and terms of lending would make sharks on Wall Street blush. These special interests have wasted taxpayers money and wasted the educations of millions of children. Their solution? Ask for more money.
Nobody should suggest that California’s public schools don’t require investment and upgrades. But before borrowing more money on the shoulders of taxpayers, why aren’t alternatives considered? Why aren’t educators clamoring for reforms that would cut back on the ratio of administrators to teachers? Why aren’t they admitting that project labor agreements raise the cost to taxpayers for all capital investments and upgrades, and doing something about it? If their primary motivation is the interests of students, why aren’t they supporting the Vergara ruling that, if enforced, will improve the quality of teachers in the classroom at no additional cost? Why aren’t they embracing charter schools, institutions whose survival is tied to their ability to produce superior educational outcomes for far less money? Why don’t they question more of these “upgrade” projects? Is it absolutely necessary to carpet every field in artificial turf, a solution that is not only expensive but causes far more injuries to student athletes? Is it necessary to spend tens of millions per school on solar power systems? Does every high school really need a new theater, or science lab? Or do they just need fewer administrators, and better teachers?
And to acknowledge the biggest, sickest elephant in the room – that massive, teetering colossus called CalSTRS, should teachers, who only spend 180 days per year actually teaching, really be entitled to pensions that equal 75% of their final salary after only 30 years, in exchange for salary withholding that barely exceeds what private employees pay into Social Security? Thanks to unreformed pensions, how many billions in school maintenance money ended up getting invested by CalSTRS in Mumbai, Shanghai, Jakarta, or other business-friendly regions?
How much money would be saved if all these tough reforms were enacted? More importantly, how much would we improve the ability of our public schools to educate the next generation of Californians? Would we still have to borrow another $12.3 billion?
Here’s an excerpt from an online post promoting one of California’s local school bond measures: “It will help student academic performance, along with ensuring our property values. If you believe that strong schools and strong communities go hand in hand, please vote…”
Unfortunately, such promises are meaningless and unenforceable. The debt is forever.
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