LOS ANGELES — Supporters of a California state school bond measure say they are confident of meeting a September deadline to gather enough signatures to place it on the November 2016 ballot.
Dave Walrath, an educational lobbyist and president of Murdoch, Walrath & Holmes, Inc., is "very confident that we will have the signatures," he said last week.
As the bond measure builds steam, a recent report from the Orange County-based California Policy Center think tank tries to poke holes in the drive for new school bond authority.
CPC contends in the report that voters don't realize how much bond authority has been granted statewide to the state's school districts through local bond elections.
"Most Californians are unaware and uninformed about this relentless borrowing and the amount of debt already accumulated to pay for school construction," the report's executive summary says.
Since 2001, California voters have approved 911 local school bond measures, giving 642 school and college districts authority to borrow a total of $110.4 billion, the report says.
Backers of the state school bond measure are using the petition drive as an end-around to Gov. Jerry Brown's opposition to such a measure.
The governor has advocated scrapping the program in which state GO bonds are issued to help fund K-12 school and community college construction projects since early last year. He reiterated this stance in the budget proposal he submitted in January.
Voters have approved $35 billion in statewide general obligation bonds for K-12 schools and community colleges since 1998, but all but $286 million was exhausted as of November, according to a report from the legislative analyst's office.
Lawmakers who want a state school bond have been unable to overcome Brown's opposition.
CPC agreed with Brown's stance in its report, which cites the history of the years-long process that resulted in legislation restricting the use of capital appreciation bonds by local school districts. It cites examples where waste and fraud have occurred around construction in local school building programs.
But another former state finance official with his own track record of skepticism on school bond proposals said the CPC's 361-page report shouldn't be taken too seriously.
"I agree with some of the criticism of capital appreciation bonds, but mostly it's an ideological document masquerading as analysis," said former California Treasurer Bill Lockyer, now a lawyer with Brown Rudnick.
The non-partisan public policy think tank describes itself as free-market oriented.
Lockyer said the bios of CPC staff and leadership revealed them to be "free-market, anti-union, and pro-school voucher."
The report comes as a coalition of educational lobbyists and school building firms try to meet the Sept. 21 deadline to gather 365,880 valid signatures from registered voters to place the $9 billion bond measure on the ballot.
Walrath said in an emailed response to the CPC report that "not only does it target us, but it also possibly harms the governor's proposal for more local funding through local bonds."
The CPC report advocates a statewide clearinghouse that shows all the bond debt and bonding authority available to school districts.
Some of the points raised in the executive summary echo or reflect the points the Brown administration raised in its January budget summary — such as the fact that the $35 billion in GO bonds approved by voters since 1998 are costing the state's General Fund roughly $2.4 billion a year in debt service costs, said H.D. Palmer, a spokesman for California's Department of Finance.
Brown has stood in the way of efforts to put a state education bond on the ballot because he thinks the state needs to take a look at whether funding for school construction should come from the state or local school districts, Lockyer said.
Lockyer added that groups such as CPC oppose funding for public schools entirely, which is not the governor's intent.
CPC policy analyst Kevin Dayton said that voters need to be aware of how much bond authority local school districts have before they approve more spending.
CPC notes that the $110.4 billion of local school bond measures voters have approved since 2001 will cost roughly $200 billion by 2055 factoring in interest payments.
Lockyer disagreed with the notion that there needs to be a clearinghouse for all local school bond issues as the CPC advocates because that information is already available, so it does not make sense for the state to spend money creating one.
He also noted that if such a thing were needed, he has confidence that his successor as treasurer, John Chiang, would create it.
"Chiang is very committed to transparency," Lockyer said. "It is a big part of his program."
Lockyer did acknowledge that while the treasurer's office through the California Debt and Investment Advisory Commission publishes a bevy of bond-related information on its website, that information on local school districts bond issuances was not available to them.
"We had to work hard to figure out where all the CABs are," Lockyer said. "That is part of Chiang's work. If this one needs work, my guess is that he will get to it."
Lockyer spearheaded legislation limiting CAB structures for school districts after critical news reports about Poway Unified School District and its CAB deal, a $105 million series that will require about $1 billion in debt service through the 40 year maturity, without a call option.
The CPC report contends the legislature should have gone further and eliminated the use of capital appreciation bonds by school districts entirely.
Lockyer agreed, saying that was his original intent, but that the Legislature would only approve a very restrictive use of CABs.
"Part of my opposition to the report is that it seems excessively apocalyptic in its tone," Lockyer said of the CPC.