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California's Crowded Ballot May Lower Success Rate

LOS ANGELES — As in previous presidential election years, scores of California school districts and local governments have placed bond measures on the ballot hoping for the enhanced success rate typical of presidential elections.

On this year's crowded Nov. 6 ballot, voters will decide 237 local revenue measures seeking approval for taxes, bonds or fees, including 106 school general obligation bond measures and seven local government GO bond measures seeking a total of $14.97 billion from voters, according to data compiled by California League of Cities fiscal policy advisor Michael Coleman for his CaliforniaCityFinance.com website.

Several school districts across the state are seeking bond issuances in the $300 million range, but the San Diego Unified School District surpasses them all with its $2.8 billion request from voters.

According to Coleman's data, the numbers are comparable to the number of local measures on the last two presidential elections in California.

Four years ago, there were 233 revenue measures including 116 school bonds and taxes on the ballot. In November 2004, there were 249 revenue measures including 86 school bonds or taxes.

Since 2000, local bond measures in California have achieved an 80% success rate. Doug Johnson, a fellow at the Rose Institute of State and Local Government at Claremont McKenna College, said while the success rate will likely remain above 50%, he does not think it will reach its previous lofty levels.

"There are two things at play," Johnson said. "There are a lot of tax measures on the ballot with three on the state level even before voters get to the local measures - and those numbers were inflated a bit, because local governments would do voter surveys and if a measure wasn't likely to pass, it would not go on the ballot."

This year, some local governments that are struggling and could not afford to do a voter survey decided to go ahead and put measures on the ballot.

"Some local governments are doing a Hail Mary, in the hopes of bringing in needed revenue, which is likely to bring the percentage down," Johnson said.

The passage of Proposition 39 in 2000 has been a factor in that success rate too, because it lowered the approval rate needed for most school facility bonds from 66.76% to 55%. Local non-school GO bonds still require a two-thirds majority.

Some school districts and local governments may be banking on the general wisdom that bond measures on presidential ballots have achieved a higher level of success historically.

The standard wisdom is that presidential elections tend to draw a broader, younger, and more liberal demographic, who are more likely to support bond issues than lower-turnout elections that bring out more conservative core voters who are more likely to oppose tax increases, according to Jon Isom, a principal of Walnut, Calif.-based Isom Advisors.

Despite the continuing sluggishness of the economy that could prompt pushback from voters, Isom said he is not surprised by the number of measures on the ballot.

"There are a couple of factors that are contributing to the higher numbers," Isom said. "There were a number of bonds passed in 2002 or 2004 by school districts, but because of cost escalation they weren't able to complete all of their projects. A lot of school districts who would have gone to voters in 2010 sat out the election because of the down economy."

Isom, whose firm acts as financial advisor for 75 of the state's school districts, said his clients polled voters to see what they were willing to support. Some school districts were encouraged to go for a larger number despite the economy while others were convinced by constituents that the number needed to be smaller, he said.

The challenge for local governments will be to make voters understand the difference between the state proposals they might not support and local measures.

"They need to get the word out to unions, Rotary members and local chambers [of commerce]," Johnson said. "Things just thrown on the ballot with no education or advocacy efforts rarely pass."

The hurdle will be much higher for the state tax measures on the ballot, because voters tend not to understand where the state money goes, Coleman said.

"People don't understand that over half of the state's general fund goes to local schools and higher education and a quarter goes to prisons," he said.

City budgets tend to seem more tangible to voters.

There are two competing statewide measures on the ballot that would raise taxes, as well as a separate measure that would raise revenue by changing tax rules for multi-state businesses.

Proposition 30, proposed by Gov. Jerry Brown, would raise the sales tax from 7.25% to 7.5% for four years and increase personal income tax rates on earnings over $250,000 for seven years. The measure would bring in an additional $6 billion annually to help K-12 schools, community colleges and state universities.

A second measure, Proposition 38, proposed by Pasadena lawyer Molly Munger, would increase state income tax rates for most Californians bringing in about $10 billion a year over the 12 years it would be in effect. The money would go to public school districts and early childhood development programs.

The two state tax measures conflict, and their backers are feuding with each other, which could confuse many voters. The way that Munger's Proposition 38 has been advertised, it could also end up competing with local measures, Johnson said.

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