Regional News

Southeast Election Ballots Show Pent-Up Needs

BRADENTON, Fla. — As the Southeastern economy slowly begins to thaw, measures on the Nov. 6 ballot reflect both fiscal conservatism and pent-up demand for education and transportation needs.

Florida lawmakers placed nearly a dozen constitutional amendments on next week's ballot, and many of them would restrict expenditures or the ability to raise taxes from the state to the local governmental level.

Some amendments could reduce revenue-raising flexibility and pressure budgets, according to analysts.

In south Florida, the Miami-Dade County School District is asking voters to approve $1.2 billion of general obligation bonds for the nation's fourth-largest public education system.

State budget cuts and reduced property values since the current economic downturn have left little or no funds for new capital, school officials say.

Nearly half of the district's 392 schools are more than 40 years old, meaning that they need renovations or replacement as well as technology upgrades, they argue in pitches to voters.

Across Miami-Dade County, which has the same boundary as the district, voters have a history of supporting school needs.

In 1988, they approved $980 million of GO bonds for school improvements. The school district issued the last of six series of GOs for the prior program in 1997, exhausting that authorization.

Today, $132 million of bonds are outstanding. They are scheduled to mature in early 2017.

If new bonds are approved next week, school officials expect very little impact on taxpayers between the outstanding bonds and new debt going forward.

The overlapping increase in property taxes for a homeowner with $100,000 of taxable value is expected to be about $5 if the new bonds are authorized, according to Public Financial Management Inc., the district's financial advisor.

Over the full, 30-year term of the new GO bond program, the average annual tax on a home with $100,000 of taxable value will be about $27 depending on future interest rates and when bonds are sold.

Currently, the district anticipates selling the $1.2 billion in six tranches of $200 million between 2014 and 2022, according to Sylvia Rojas, the school district treasurer.

"The GO bond program will be 100% locally funded and 100% of proceeds will be invested in traditional public schools within Miami-Dade County, and all the construction work will be performed by local vendors," Rojas said. "The fact that it is a local initiative and 100% invested in the local community is important to voters."

Without the new bond proceeds, the cost of deferring renovations and replacing old school buildings will increase especially since there are no available resources to pay for planned projects, she said.

District officials also believe that the current environment is conducive to issuing bonds because of low interest rates and construction costs, and that the work will infuse the local economy with new jobs.

According to an economic study commissioned by the school district, south Florida lost 150,000 jobs since the so-called housing bubble burst in 2007 and 2008.

Projects funded by the $1.2 billion of bonds would create 18,436 jobs and generate $877 million in labor income, said the study by the Washington Economics Group.

Meanwhile, the Florida Legislature has packed next week's ballot with 11 amendments. Among them lawmakers hope the electorate will approve new tax exemptions they say could stimulate real estate sales and values, while another places new restrictions on state spending.

The wording and intent of the amendments has been widely controversial.

Amendment 3 would revise the method by which the state revenue limitation is calculated each year, and is complex, according to an analysis by the University of Florida.

Republican lawmakers passed the measure and dubbed it the "Smart Cap." It is often compared to Colorado's controversial Taxpayer Bill of Rights because it includes spending limits tied to inflation and population growth.

Florida's version differs from Colorado's TABOR because the cap includes revenue used to pay debt service on bonds issued after July 1, 2012.

If passed, the amendment would phase in during fiscal 2015, and some state analysts have said that over time, the proposed state revenue limitation "potentially constrains growth in state revenues more than the current limitation" in the state's constitution.

Though it will not hinder the state's ability to pay debt service, amendment 3 would require lawmakers to establish spending priorities, according to Ben Watkins, director of the Division of Bond Finance.

"We believe the measure would not have an immediate material effect on credit quality, but we will continue to evaluate the credit based on the state's overall finances, taking into account the state's ability to manage within its revenue limitations and to adjust its expenditures," Standard & Poor's said in an Oct. 24 commentary. S&P assigns an AAA to Florida's GO-equivalency rating.

Several other amendments on Florida's election ballot would increase property tax exemptions and place new restrictions on increases in property assessments.

Local governments and districts depend on property taxes to fund the majority of their budgets.

Amendment 4 would affect property assessments, and state economists estimate that the aggregate revenue losses for counties, cities, special districts, and school districts would rise from $156 million in fiscal 2014 to $565 million by fiscal 2016 and thereafter, according to the Standard & Poor's report.

"We believe that the measure could noticeably reduce local government revenue-raising flexibility in the longer term, considering that many tax bases have contracted in recent years," the report said.

Amendment 4 could exacerbate budget problems that have been experienced by local governmental entities due to declining tax values, according to Fitch Ratings analyst Larry Levitz.

"When taxable values are falling as experienced by most Florida localities during the past four years, any further declines as a result of amendment 4, however minor, add to the pressure on local governments to maintain services and balance operations," Levitz said in an Oct. 24 commentary.

Elsewhere in the Southeast on Nov. 6, what is believed to be the second-largest bond referendum is taking place in Richland County, S.C., which includes the state capital of Columbia,

Voters are being asked in two separate questions to approve a 1-cent, 20-year sales tax to finance nearly $940 million in transit and road projects, and $450 million of GO bonds backed by the sales tax to fund part of the program.

County officials have said there are more than $2.5 billion worth of transportation funding needs, though planned spending of bond proceeds has been controversial. Voters refused to pass a similar transportation proposal in 2010.

In Wake County, N.C., voters next week are being asked to approve $200 million of GOs for new facilities and renovations at Wake Technical Community College, the state's second-largest community college.




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