California June Ballot: Statewide

We Californians have a pretty thin primary ballot this go-round, but here are my summaries and recommendations on the two propositions:

41: Yes. Prop 41 is a $600 million bond initiative for housing low-income and homeless veterans, but in a certain light it’s not even new spending. In 2008 the voters approved $900 million in bonds for a similar purpose, but that money remains unborrowed. Under that measure, Prop 12, the Department of Veterans Affairs (CalVet) was to use the money to make low-interest loans to veterans buying houses and farms. But right after that the economy collapsed, and CalVet never drew on any of the Prop 12 money, because not only were people not buying houses, but the interest rate that had previously been below market became above market. Now, the Legislature has voted unanimously to rededicate 2/3 of that unused bond authority to affordable, transitional, or sustainable housing for veterans, prioritizing extremely low-income veterans (under about $14,000/year income).

Note the difference: before, the idea was to help veterans buy houses; now, it’s going to build housing (by distributing the money to local government, nonprofits, or private developers) and then rent it out to veterans at whatever they can afford (which might be nothing). Multifamily rather than single-family housing is targeted. I’m pleased that the minds behind this proposition seem to have taken as a guiding principle that you address homelessness foremost by simply getting homes for people, after which helping them becomes a lot easier. The focus has shifted from the Platonic ideal of a person with a job in the suburbs to a realistic assessment of people’s situations and what is likely to be most effective for people in the most need.

$600 million is a lot; is it too much? No, not really. According to HUD’s Annual Homeless Assessment, in January 2013 there were 15,179 homeless veterans in California (see page 40 of the link). Divided out, that’s less than $40,000 per person, which at a quickly-Googled national average construction cost of $125/square foot could theoretically build a 320-square-foot apartment for each homeless veteran. But that doesn’t take into account housed but extremely low-income veterans (perhaps with unaffordable or irregular housing) who would also be among the beneficiaries, or veterans’ families. Also, in practice, zoning and land-use issues, as well as the difficulty of finding enough localities and organizations to take on the work, may well leave some money on the table. So $600 million is arguably insufficient for solving the entire problem – but it could go quite a long way.

I’ll admit I’m not exactly thrilled about the focus on veterans. They have a high, and valid, moral demand on public empathy and the public purse, but I don’t see that as significantly higher than that of other homeless and low-income people, whom society has seriously neglected in other ways. Generally dividing the poor into worthy and unworthy is an illegitimate enterprise, and focusing on veterans is arguably a version of that. But even if this measure provided housing for veterans and nobody else (which is impractical), it would benefit everyone by easing demand for rental and supportive housing overall. In practice, it’s only required that 50% of the funds end up housing veterans with extremely low incomes (though all programs must be targeted to them), so a good portion of the benefit will spill over to other homeless and low-income.

Finally, the actual impact on the state budget would be the need to pay off the bonds at $50 million a year for 15 years – very affordable considering the rest of the budget, and that the legislature is determined to find room for it.

42: Yes. Last year there was a fracas where the Governor almost signed a bill that declared it “optional” for local governments to comply with certain aspects of the Public Records Act: responding to requests in some way within 10 days, actively assisting people find the information they are looking for, making electronic data available in any requested format it exists in (i.e., searchable formats!). They weren’t trying to end these practices as such, they were just being rather reckless about them – the state constitution requires the state to reimburse local governments when it requires them do things, and this was one of those things, and I presume (I haven’t found any inside scoop) they thought those reimbursements were something that could usefully be cut, because local governments would follow the rules anyway. As a bandage, the bill would have required local governments to declare publicly if they were choosing to abandon those rules.

Of course there was an outcry, although only after the bill was passed as budget trailer language – a bill printing out as 57 pages full of dull provisions implementing the budget decisions for the year, usually passed in some haste. The Governor held back after the outcry, and this proposition came into being. It says that as a constitutional matter, local governments must follow the public records and public meetings laws, whether or not the state pays them for their expenses.

This is mostly a no-brainer – so much so as for it to be unclear why it needed to be on the ballot in the first place. The amount of money at stake is tiny; the state could have backed down, or negotiated something with the localities. But it’s still a decent proposition in isolation. (Nobody came forward to oppose in the voter guide, so one Gary Wesley wrote some halfhearted paragraphs, but evidently the task was so boring he used some of the space to write about highway tolls.)

My only tiny reservation is that the Brown Act on public meetings, one of the laws that would be written into the constitution, may overreach a bit – in my limited access to city government, it imposed so many restrictions on public meetings that it made it hard for councilmembers to even maintain contact with each other. But my experience is limited, and the Act enshrines basic public access to meetings in a dozen different ways.

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