SAN FRANCISCO - Voters in the Far West face more than $45 billion in bond measures Tuesday, led by California, where more than $40 billion of debt is on the ballot.
In addition to three state measures, topped by a $10 billion authorization to finance a high-speed passenger train system, voters around the state will see at least 103 local bond measures totalling more than $24.8 billion, including a $7 billion authorization from the Los Angeles Unified School District. Tens of billions more are at stake in local tax measures that would back debt for infrastructure.
Because of the time needed to prepare ballots, those bond measures were finalized by summer, before an already weak national economy escalated into a crisis punctuated by the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers and the hotly debated $700 billion bailout bill that finally passed Congress in early October.
With the Far West region leading the pack, an estimated $66 billion of bonds will be voted on around the nation, the largest amount ever in a presidential election year. The all-time record for a November election was $78.6 billion in 2006, which was not a presidential election.
With unemployment on the rise, and signs of the foreclosure wave evident in many California communities, local bond measures may not be as well received as their backers hoped earlier this year, said David McCuan, a political science professor at Sonoma State University and expert on initiative politics.
"Local and statewide bond measures have been passing at higher than the norm historically," McCuan said of recent election cycles. "This particular ballot, I would suspect that even things like bonds for veterans or children's hospitals will be close and are likely to fail."
He was referring to a $900 million bond measure for veterans' bonds, and a $980 million measure for childrens' hospitals, two of the four state bond measures on the California ballot.
The veterans' bonds, which carry a GO pledge but are designed to be repaid with mortgage revenues, would continue a decades-old program.
Lawmakers referred the veterans' and high-speed rail measures. The other two referendums, for the kids' hospitals and a $5 billion bond measure to subsidize natural gas vehicles, were financed by the beneficiaries - the hospitals and a natural gas fueling company owned by T. Boone Pickens, respectively.
California voters are not pleased with the way things are going, which is likely to help Democrats and their standard-bearer, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, after eight years of a Republican presidency, according to McCuan.
By the same token, he said, they are not apt to be receptive to spending requests.
"Voters are voting their pocketbooks first, and their anger second. Those two things are going to come together to create an anti-incumbent, anti-establishment, anti-tax vote," McCuan said. "Anything that spends money faces an uphill battle and anything that requires a two-thirds vote is really in the hole."
In California, state bond measures need a majority vote to pass. There are 10 local bonds from cities, counties, and special districts that require a two-thirds vote. The remainder are from school and community college districts, which require a 55% vote.
The biggest local bond election is the Los Angeles Unified School District's $7 billion measure. Los Angeles voters have approved $13.6 billion of LAUSD GOs in four elections since 1997, but the district says it still faces a $60 billion backlog of unmet capital needs.
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and school officials are pushing the plan to take on a big chunk of that backlog now, rather than constantly returning to voters with smaller requests. Local voters will also get to decide the fate of a proposed $3.5 billion measure for the Los Angeles Community College District, which has garnered less attention in the local media and less high-profile support from politicians like Villaraigosa.
Relatively more tax-averse San Diego voters will decide the second-biggest local school election, a $2.1 billion measure that would rebuild the San Diego Unified School District. They also get to decide the fate of controversial Democratic city attorney Mike Aguirre. Aguirre is beloved by some locals as a crusader against corruption and public employee pensions, but he's widely disliked in City Hall, where he has railed against Mayor Jerry Sanders and blocked certificate of participation deals because he thinks they're illegal.
Aguirre faces Republican Superior Court Judge Jan Goldsmith in a runoff election. Goldsmith beat Aguirre in a five-candidate, nonpartisan primary election in June but failed to garner a majority of the vote, forcing a runoff. Goldsmith won 32% of the June vote compared to 29% for Aguirre.
Voters in San Francisco and Santa Clara County decide the fate of $800 million-plus of hospital bond measures that would rebuild their facilities to meet state earthquake safety measures. The $887 million San Francisco General Hospital GO deal has overwhelming support and no organized opposition in the left-leaning city, where the mayor, Board of Supervisors, doctors' groups, the major local newspapers, and public health officials have endorsed the measure.
The tailwinds from the economy are likely to affect bond measures for his clients, said Abel J. Guillen, vice president of Caldwell Flores Winters Inc., a firm that advises California school districts on finances and elections.
"I'm hopeful districts seeking additional [bond] authorization without raising tax rates, that those programs have a better shot," he said.
It will probably be more difficult for districts seeking higher tax rates, GuillÃ©n said, meaning the 85% passage rate that school bonds experienced in California's February and June elections may not be repeated.
At least four counties are seeking to extend or create new sales taxes to back transportation projects, while voters in Marin and Sonoma counties will decide on a sales tax that would finance a commuter train system.
In Santa Clara County, voters will decide a one-eighth-cent sales tax measure that would help raise $2 billion to extend the Bay Area Rapid Transit system to San Jose and the heart of Silicon Valley. The system, which connects Oakland, San Francisco, and many of their suburbs, currently stops about 16 miles short of the Bay Area's biggest city, San Jose.
The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority is seeking to raise a mammoth $30 billion to $40 billion with an additional half-cent sales tax in the nation's biggest county. The money would back bonds and pay-as-you-go capital spending, including light-rail line extensions, new bus lanes, new subway lines to Santa Monica and Los Angeles International Airport, freeway improvements, and local transportation projects.
Long Beach is seeking a 30-year, $571 million parcel tax on properties that would be used to back bonds for infrastructure. All those proposals would need a two-thirds vote to pass.
In Oregon, voters will decide on $2.2 billion in 65 local elections, mostly for schools, according to data from the office of state Treasurer Randall Edwards.
The biggest election is in Portland, where voters will decide a $374 million GO measure for the Portland Community College. Multnomah County voters will also decide the fate of a $125 million measure for the Metro Zoo. The Salem-Keizer School District in Marion County is asking for $242 million.
Oregon voters will also choose a new state treasurer to replace Edwards, who is barred from seeking re-election by term limits. Republican businessman Allen Alley of Lake Oswego and Democratic state Sen. Ben Westlund of Bend are competing to be the state's chief fiscal officer.
In Alaska, voters will decide on a $315 million GO measure for transportation projects.
In Washington, there are 13 local bond measures, the largest for $25 million, according to Ipreo.
In the Seattle region, voters will be asked to raise taxes to finance an expansion of the Sound Transit rail system.
The state's voters will weigh in on the entire executive branch, including a rematch of 2004's razor-thin governor's race won by Democrat Chris Gregoire over Republican Dino Rossi. Voters will also select a new state treasurer to replace Mike Murphy, who is retiring after three terms.