LOS ANGELES -- California television screens bulged last week with commercials for candidates and propositions, but one of the most significant and potentially damaging features of the Nov. 6 ballot went largely unmentioned.
Tacked to the tail of the lengthy ballot are 10 bond measures, which, combined with bonds attached to four initiatives, break all state records for voter-authorized borrowing in the nation's most populous state. They run the gamut of California's needs -- schools, prisons, housing, parks, child care -- and expose a state budget system so creaky and ossified it threatens to kill off many of the glittering reform plans now being advertised on television.
California voters have been famous for their anti-tax fervor since they approved Proposition 13, an unprecedented assault on real estate taxes, in 1978 against the advice of nearly every major elected official in the state. Less well known has been the voters' growing fondness for heavy borrowing, an echo of similar habits in Washington, to finance projects that can find no tax support in Sacramento.
Since 1982 only one statewide bond issue has failed. Voters authorized a total of $14 billion in general obligation bonds in the 1980s, $2 billion more than the total authorized in the previous 70 years.
Now, in the first year of the 1990s, they have a chance to push borrowing to even higher levels. They approved $5.14 billion in bonds in the June primary, a record for a single ballot, and will exceed that Nov. 6 if they approve all $5.769 billion in the 14 propositions with bonding authority.
This has begun to concern even commentators like New West Notes editor Bill Bradley, a Democrat who has supported efforts to change the revenue-raising limits imposed by Proposition 13 and other successful, conservative-backed ballot initiatives. "California still has an AAA credit rating," he said, "but for how long?"
What little controversy that has attached itself to the issue comes almost entirely from bonds being proposed to support forest protection under three major environmental initiatives, Propositions 128, 130 and 138. In each case the bonds have been mentioned only in passing, with little discussion of the philosophy of government by borrowing.
The most outspoken concern has come from Gov. George Deukmejian (R), an almost forgotten figure in a year devoted to the clash between his two possible successors, Sen. Pete Wilson (R) and former San Francisco mayor Dianne Feinstein (D). "Without fiscal restraint by the voters this fall, we could find ourselves too deeply in debt and jeopardize the sound fiscal health we have worked so hard to achieve," the governor said. The latest reports indicate the new governor will be immediately faced with a $1 billion deficit, not counting the strain of additional bond payments on revenues locked up by various controlling initiatives.
There has been a flurry of worried statements and press releases on the issue from Thomas W. Hayes (R), the former state auditor general Deukmejian appointed state treasurer when Jesse Unruh (D) died. Hayes, who has never run for elective office, is trying to retain his post against a well-funded campaign by Kathleen Brown (D), daughter of former governor Edmund G. "Pat" Brown and sister of former governor Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr.
"During the last year and a half I have continually expressed my concern about the state's increasing dependence on bonds and the need for a long-range financing plan," Hayes said. "It is important to remember that bonds are not free money. They must be paid back, with interest." Brown has expressed a similar commitment to the state's credit rating, one of the five best in the nation, but at the same time has criticized Hayes for not selling bonds fast enough. "Nearly $7 billion in bonds for schools, housing and other desperately needed projects have been sitting in the vault for years," she said.
Hayes has proposed only modest limits on future borrowing. He would allow up to $35 billion in bonds in the 1990s, a 150 percent increase over the previous decade.
A crucial test will occur in 10 days, when confused and irritated voters confront the ballot they have been hearing so much about on television. Deukmejian has recommended a vote of "No" on half the bond measures, but his advice received little publicity.
More important may be what sort of mood voters are in near the end of a turgid, 28-proposition ballot. Up to now, said Fred Silva, chief consultant on financial matters to Senate President David A. Roberti, "voters have said, 'Yep, we need that, we need that,' when they look at them one at a time."
But this time, Silva said, with the ballot so long and the economy somewhat uncertain, "it's real hard to predict what they'll do."