March 2020 ballot measures, California, Alameda Co., Oakland

We face another election and, as always, I am here to inform you on the proposals on your ballots – not so many this March, but come November, there will be a deluge.

(In the presidential primary, vote Warren! And sign up here if you want to get email alerts to future updates like this.)

Summary, with fuller writeups below:

JurisdictionNameQuick descriptionMy recommendation
StateProp 13Bond for school infrastructureYes
Alameda CountyMeasure CChildren’s childcare, early education, and healthYes
OaklandMeasure QParks and homelessness fundingYes
OaklandMeasure RFix obsolete notice-in-newspaper requirementsYes
OaklandMeasure SRaise spending limitYes

I sometimes split my endorsements on proposals that are technically good ones, but that can and should be handled by legislators rather than cluttering up the ballot and taking voters’ attention. I am comfortable voting against otherwise okay measures for that reason, so I offer this option in my writeups. This time, though, there are no such measures – nothing is good-yet-frivolous, they’re all good enough to support.

Proposition 13: Bonds for Facility Repair, Construction, and Modernization at Schools. Yes

This is the “good” Prop 13 (2020), unrelated to the very bad Prop 13 (1978) that I will rant about elsewhere.

Part of how the state builds and renovates schools is by periodically taking out a big loan (bond), and paying back the loan gradually out of the state budget. That way, the large amount of money big projects need upfront is reduced to something more manageable annually. Such bonds have to go on the ballot, saith the state constitution.

As a reminder, taking on debt for infrastructure is nothing at all like “running up money on credit cards” or other bad analogies. Governments are not households; we are essentially borrowing from ourselves as a society, to enhance that same society and to make our economy stronger in the future. Keeping our schools from falling apart is one of the best uses we can apply our borrowing power to.

This Prop 13 takes out $15 billion in such bonds and spends them as follows: $9 billion for pre-K-to-12, and $2 billion each for community colleges, CSU, and UC. For pre-K-12, a state commission would oversee distributing funds to school districts as their projects come up. Districts would need to provide matching funds, so they’ll often put up local bond measures of their own. On the college side, the three systems’ governing boards will submit projects to the state for approval, and will have to meet various requirements, including some of their own matching funds.

What makes this bond measure different – better – from ones in previous years is that it tackles inequities in how the bond system has worked so far. In the most recent similar measure (Prop 51 of 2016), the state reviewed applications as they came in, “first-served,” and not only were wealthier school districts better able to collect the needed matching local funds, they also had more resources to put together applications quickly. Jerry Brown opposed Prop 51 because it didn’t reform this inequity, although few joined him.

Well, Prop 13 (2020) makes real reforms: it increases the percentage it will fund low-resource districts on a sliding scale, and considers needy districts’ applications higher in priority. It would strike a blow for labor by prioritizing applications with a project labor agreement. And finally, it would address the pressing health issue of lead in school water by dedicating $150 million to lead-abatement projects. (Other projects impacting safety and health – say, asbestos removal – would also get some priority.)

Considering the climate impacts of concrete, it’s also good that it prioritizes renovation over new construction, with 2/3 funds allocated for renovation not new construction, and awarded at a higher matching rate. (With Prop 51 of 2016, it was half construction, half renovation.)

Prop 13 dedicates a little more to pre-K-12 than its predecessors, but a lot more to the colleges. Prop 51 of 2016, by contrast, gave $7 billion to schools, $2 billion to community colleges, but nothing to CSU or UC. What has changed, as far as I’ve been able to tell, is that CSU/UC have put together capital plans that make the compelling case that more is needed than they got from funding mechanisms they were most recently pursuing. Unfunded capital needs in the next five years amount to $22 billion for community colleges, $13.7 billion for CSU, and $11.8 billion for UC. (Affordable student housing is among the projects they want to fund, and that the measure will prioritize.)

Some people have expressed concern over the developer fee provisions in the measure. They do deserve some explanation. Some cities and districts charge impact fees on developers, X dollars per square foot of new house or apartment, to offset the costs of public services that are supposed to come with development. These fees are an inefficient method to finance public goods, their logic is dubious, and in some cities they’re set high enough to make it hard to build anything at all, but they make some limited sense given how hard it is to raise taxes.

There are Impact fees for lots of needs, not just schools: most of them are for affordable housing, transportation, etc., schools only a small chunk. But if you think about it, school fees are a way for localities to get the needed revenue to renovate and build schools, and so are these new bonds. So it makes sense that, for as long as the bond money is coming through – 2020 through 2026 – if Prop 13 passes, school fees will be reduced somewhat. Specifically, fees would be eliminated for the small subset of projects that are the most climate-friendly: multifamily housing within half a mile of a major transit station. For all other projects, the maximum fee a locality can assess would be 20 percent lower for six years. Then in 2026, those restraints would go away.

(Prop 51 controlled school impact fees too, but in a simpler way – it froze state laws setting maximum school fees, so the state couldn’t raise them even if it wanted, until the end of 2020. )

This aspect of Prop 13 is not government at its finest. Even if it makes sense in policy terms to limit school fees, I suspect this provision was crafted more as a giveaway to developers, who pay for these bond measures’ campaigns expecting to then bid on the projects they fund. But Prop 13 is a consensus measure, with the governor and legislature turning it to more progressive ends than the developer proponents would have chosen on their own. And in the end the need is no less urgent. Recommendation: Yes.

Alameda County Measure C: Sales Tax for Childcare, Early Education, and Children’s Health Care. Yes

This is a reworking of 2018’s Measure A, which I analyzed and recommended Yes on at the time. Under our radically anti-tax constitution, most tax measures at the local level need 2/3 approval to succeed, which makes even tax measures that should be slam-dunks tricky. Sadly, Measure A got exactly 66.2% of the vote, and failed because that’s not 66.7%.

Measure C this year is a slight reworking of Measure A, with a few differences. It raises the sales tax by half a percent, but this expires after 20 years (Measure A lasted 30). Measure A dedicated all the money to making more and better-quality childcare and early childhood education available to families regardless of income, at good wages and benefits; Measure C dedicates 80% of the money there, but 20% to Children’s Hospital Oakland to help it provide complex specialty care to children regardless of ability to pay. There is oversight over both spending buckets; it’s far from a straight handout.

Measure C also requires union neutrality of its funded childcare centers, which I believe its predecessor did not.

Read my prior writeup for the whole argument, but the urgent need for childcare addressed by the 2018 measure is just as urgent today, or more so as rents in the Bay rise and wages for care workers do not. Childcare is gaining more attention at the national level, and a broader universal program, funded by taxes on wealthier people, is more ideal and perhaps in reach; however, in the meantime, we need to do the best we can with what we have. A sales tax is more regressive, but counties are limited in what kinds of taxes they can raise (e,g., no income taxes), and this measure’s funding will also go to the neediest. Measure A deserved to win two years ago; Measure C does too. Yes

Oakland Measure Q: Parcel Tax for Parks and Homelessness. Yes

Q is another of the many measures necessitated by our anti-tax constitution. Because multiple “tax protest” measures like 1978’s Prop 13 prevent property tax revenues from keeping pace with the economy, and adds supermajority (2/3) requirements for most other kinds of local taxes, there is rarely enough revenue to keep up basic city services. The city is forced to spend more and more of its budget over time on the core services of police, fire, and roads, and quality-of-life priorities like parks suffer, tragically but predictably.

(Yes, city inefficiency is also an issue, but revenue inadequacy is a bigger, more foundational one. It makes the problem less tractable, because with revenues so inadequate, city officials pushing for internal reforms are unlikely to achieve results the voters will recognize and reward them for. It makes the game unwinnable.)

In the case of parks specifically, funding didn’t go away entirely over Oakland’s many budget troubles, but that was partly because there’s a longstanding measure dedicating revenue to parks – which is just the same $20 million a year, not adjusting upward for inflation. After so many years, the city was finally at the point of having to cut parks services despite the economy, sparking this measure to prevent that.

Q also adds more resources for combating homelessness. I don’t think I need to make the case that homelessness is a pressing moral issue and those with means have the obligation to do more now. Larger entities like county and state should have a bigger role, but the reality is that the city is now taking a major role in adding homelessness alternatives. There are also problems in how the city manages it – the police continue to clear camps without offering good alternatives – but again, without the revenue there is not even a chance of them doing better. (Those who have harshly criticized how the mayor handles homelessness still support this measure.)

Measure Q charges single homes another $148/year for 20 years, and apartments and other businesses different amounts scaling up with size. 64% of the money would go to the parks system, 30% to temporary and permanent housing and services for those experiencing homelessness, 5% to water quality, and 1% to oversight.

It is vexing that our anti-tax constitution requires we keep adding taxes like these piecemeal. This November, we will have the ability to strike a blow against the cold clammy grasp of the anti-tax movements with the Schools and Communities First initiative, which will close a loophole and collect billions more from commercial entities only, and I urge you to sign the petition for it if the opportunity arises. I will write that up later this year. In the meantime, yes on Q.

Measure R: Newspaper Disclosure requirements. Yes

I will keep this short in keeping with its importance. There is a provision in the City Charter requiring publishing various notices of city business in a newspaper with at least 25,000 circulation. Today, with newspapers tanking, that isn’t workable. Because it’s in the Charter (the city constitution), we can’t adjust to reality without putting the question on the ballot. Measure R requires the Council to find other means to publicly disclose city business, which with the internet are now abundantly available. Yes.

Measure S: Appropriations limitation. Yes

Another of our anti-tax, anti-social constitutional strictures is the Gann Limit, passed in 1979. It required government spending of taxes not grow in any year by more than the increase in population and in an economic statistic – either per capita income, or the assessed property tax base. A follow-up proposition in 1990 made it a little less onerous, but the city of Oakland is now once again near its limit.

The Gann Limit only makes sense if you think government is inherently doing too much, and no increase in its spending can possibly be justified. That’s a view rooted in the 70’s and 80’s backlash to the civil rights movement and Great Society measures: that new Reaganite consensus that it was people’s own fault they were not succeeding. The credo was to make government “small enough it could be drowned in the bathtub.”

Even starting from the Gann Limit’s own principles, it is a clumsy, barely workable policy: if employee health care costs grow faster than personal incomes, the city gets no relief. And if that personal income stagnation is itself the result of corporate owners diverting almost all profits to themselves, the limit ignores it.

By rights, the mindset that led to the Gann Limit would not be shareable in polite company. In the meantime, Measure S relieves Oakland of this artificial restriction for just the next four years. Yes.

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