In November 2016 Californians approved Prop. 51, authorizing $9.0 billion in new borrowing for construction and upgrades of public schools. Also on November 8, Californians approved 171 local bond measures, authorizing over $22 billion in additional financing for construction and upgrades of public schools.
This new borrowing is only to construct and upgrade K-12 and community college campuses. Total K-12 enrollment in California has been stable at around 6.3 million students for over a decade. Community college enrollment in California is about 2.1 million students. This means that this latest round of borrowing equates to $3,735 per student. And similar sums are thrown at California’s K-12 schools and community colleges for construction and upgrades every two years. What gives?
One of the most obvious problems with voter approved bonds in California is the preference given school bonds. Proposition 39, passed in Nov. 2000, reduced the supermajority needed to pass a bond issue ballot question from 66% to 55%. Meanwhile, all other public construction bonds still need the 66% supermajority. Inevitably, this law has resulted in abundant money flowing into school construction, while neglecting roads and other public infrastructure.
We asked State Senator John Moorlach, the only licensed CPA to hold office in California’s state legislature, and one of the most financially savvy individuals in Sacramento, to comment on what might constitute a “good” bond. Here is his checklist:
(1) Plan: A detailed plan that itemizes what projects will be funded with the bond proceeds is essential. How will bonds be issued and proceeds spent? Most bond measures fall short of providing itemized budgets that clearly explain the use of funds, which magnifies the opportunities for wasteful spending.
(2) Oversight: How will the implementation of the projects funded by a bond be monitored. Who will sit on the oversight board and how will people with conflicts of interest be screened out. What authority will the citizen board have if they uncover misuse of funds? Will they be able to stop work on a project?
(3) Terms: The devil is in the details. A fairly written bond contract will have a ratio of total principal and interest payments to principal of between two-to-one and three-to-one. But bonds still slip through, avoiding informed scrutiny by a financial expert, that can have ratios of total payments to principal amount as high as ten-to-one. Costs of issuance are another area where abuse occurs. A fairly written bond contract will award the underwriters between one and two percent. A small bond, say, under $10 million, may command a fee of around three percent. More than that is unfair to taxpayers.
(4) Reserves: Do the financial statements of the issuer indicate sufficient funds to maintain and operate the newly funded facilities even in the event of a financial downturn? Many school districts have new bond measures on the ballot every two years. But the payments on each of these bonds, not subject to any Prop. 13 restrictions, increase property tax assessments for thirty years or more. With school enrollment in California stable for over ten years, where is this money going?
(5) Maintenance: It is common to see the term “deferred maintenance” listed as one of the uses of proceeds for a proposed bond. When new construction is financed with a bond, how much cash will be set aside to maintain these facilities? Equally pertinent, why can’t this maintenance be funded out of operating budgets?
(6) Promotional Funding: Is the campaign supporting a bond paid for by the people who’ll benefit from the bond? There is a clear conflict of interests when the most active participants in the paid political debate over whether or not voters should support a new bond proposal are the underwriters who will collect fees, the construction firms who will do the work, and the teachers unions who will always favor more facilities on their campuses.
(7) Project Labor Agreements: If the bond doesn’t explicitly prohibit cost-boosting Project Labor Agreements, then it is likely they will be incorporated. By excluding non-union shops from the bidding process, project costs are inflated by between 10% and 40%, all of which is borne by taxpayers.
A California Policy Center study released in 2015, “For the Kids” – Comprehensive Review of California School Bonds,” estimated that between 2000 and 2014, California’s voters approved, on average, $10 billion per year on new school bonds. Since then, through November 8, voters have approved at least another $40 billion of new school bonds. Not including the interest on bonds still outstanding that were issued before 2000, the interest and principal payments on this $180 billion in school bond borrowing costs taxpayers at least $11.7 billion per year.
Adopting these seven criteria to evaluate bonds will go a long way towards ensuring that bond debt is approved by informed voters, and that the proceeds serve the people, especially the students, instead of special interests.