Regional News

California Voters Face $2.3 Billion

SAN FRANCISCO -California voters will decide the fate of almost $2.3 billion in bond measures Tuesday.

There are at least 36 local general obligation bond measures appearing on ballots in Tuesday's statewide primary election, which is expected to draw fairly low turnout after state lawmakers stole its thunder by moving the high-profile presidential primary vote to February.

What remains are local referendums like the bond measures, elections for some local offices, and party primaries for seats in the state Legislature and Congress, including a few highly competitive primaries and many yawners.

Voters will also decide on two dueling statewide ballot measures on the subject of eminent domain.

"You're looking at a fairly high turnout in February and November and a low turnout in June," said campaign consultant Larry Tramutolaof Oakland-based Tramutola LLC, an expert on local tax elections in California.

"After February, there was kind of this collective wisdom that the higher turnout election the better," he said. "I think a lot of districts kind of held off decision making and decided to hold off [until November]."

The February presidential primary brought a 57.7% turnout of registered voters - the highest for any election since the 1980 presidential election, according to the California secretary of state's office.

It proved a good environment for local bond measures, as voters approved 30 measures authorizing more than $4.1 billion in debt out of 39 measures asking for $4.37 billion.

But the districts that are going next week might find the low general visibility of the election to be a good environment in which make their case, according to Tramutola.

"You have the ability to communicate with everyone who's likely to vote," he said.

In November, though turnout will be high, much of the attention will be focused on the presidential election and high-profile issues like a state referendum on gay marriage.

"In November, you're competing with lots of other things on the ballot," Tramutola said. "It's hard to get your message through."

Statewide elections are key markers for California school districts going out for bond measures.

Under Proposition 39, a state constitutional amendment California voters approved in 2000, school bonds can be approved with only 55% of the vote under certain conditions. One of those conditions is that there must be another scheduled election throughout the school district on the same date. All other local bond measures need a two-thirds vote to pass.

After November, the next scheduled statewide election isn't until 2010. To be on the November ballot, school boards must act by August, according to an online Orrick, Herrington & SutcliffeLLP publication for school finance clients.

School districts are requesting 33 of the 36 bond measures known to The Bond Buyer. One, the Santa Ana Unified School District in Orange County, will require a two-thirds vote to pass its $200 million bond measure. That's because the ballot item was approved by a 3-to-2 vote of the school board, whereas at least two-thirds of the board must vote for the measure for it to qualify to pass with 55% of the vote.

The biggest bond measure next week is a $378 million request from the Palo Alto Unified School District. The district, with about 11,000 students, plans to use the proceeds to renovate and expand schools throughout the system, while structuring the bond issuance to avoid increasing property tax rates beyond those established as part of a 1995 bond issue.

The smallest comes from Stone Corral Elementary School District in Tulare County, which is asking voters to approve $715,000 in debt to finance upgrades to its single school, which has 136 students, according to the California Department of Education.

According to the text of the bond measure, use of the proceeds will include repairs to the roof and walls, upgrading rest rooms to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, telephones in every classroom, and upgrading the garage to shelter the new bus.

The Palo Alto Unified measure is one of three sizable school bond requests in Santa Clara County; the others are a $198 million request from the Fremont Union High School District and a $179 million measure from the Alum Rock Union Elementary School District.

Other big bond items around the state include $205 from the Hayward Unified School District in Alameda County, $195 million from the Oceanside Unified School District in San Diego County, and $152 million from the Central Unified School District in Fresno County.

A spokeswoman for Secretary of State Debra Bowen said her office is making no predictions about turnout next week, because there is no recent precedent for splitting the primary into two separate elections as California has done this year.

Two statewide bond measures have qualified for the November ballot so far.

They are a $9.95 billion GO bond authorization to commence construction of a high-speed passenger train system, and a $980 million bond measure for remodeling and construction of children's hospitals.

Unlike local bond measures, statewide bond measures only need a majority vote to pass.

Andrew Ward contributed to this story.




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