Capitol Alert

Fact check: Gavin Newsom stretches impact of bond initiative

Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks to The Sacramento Bee editorial board on Feb. 2, 2016.
Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks to The Sacramento Bee editorial board on Feb. 2, 2016.

Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, a candidate for governor in 2018, came out recently against a ballot measure that, if adopted, would force large public works projects to go before voters for approval.

The immediate effect of the measure is the impact it could have on Gov. Jerry Brown’s $15.5 billion plan to build two tunnels to divert water southward under the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. But it’s unclear how many other projects the initiative could affect, a point critics are hammering to raise concerns about the measure.

The initiative, backed by Dean Cortopassi, a wealthy Stockton-area farmer and food processor, would require voter approval before the state could issue revenue bonds for any project costing more than $2 billion.

The statement: “Respectfully but resolutely, I am opposed to the statewide ballot measure which – in an attempt to stop one infrastructure project – limits local control and puts thousands of potential state and local job-creating projects into uncertainty, if not outright jeopardy,” Newsom said in a prepared statement. “Underscoring its potential unintended consequences, the independent Legislative Analyst can’t even tell how many projects would be affected under the measure or whether emergency projects related to natural disasters could be delayed.”

Analysis: Newsom’s statement constructs an extreme scenario about the number and type of projects the measure could affect.

Projects costing more than $2 billion are relatively rare, and it’s unclear how much “local control” voters would sacrifice if they approved the initiative. The measure pertains to state projects, while specifically excluding cities, counties and school districts.

But a state project, as defined by the initiative, is any project financed, owned, operated or managed by the state – or by any joint-powers agency or similar body in which the state is a member.

Local governments could have a stake in such projects, and the initiative could affect them.

The broader argument underlying the claim about local control is that revenue bonds are typically repaid using revenue from the projects they finance, leaving control of a project’s financing to the agencies footing the bill. Cortopassi’s initiative would make the funding of such projects a statewide – not a local – concern.

Newsom’s more questionable claim is his assertion that the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office “can’t even tell how many projects would be affected” or if projects related to natural disasters could be delayed.

It is true that the LAO has said the number of projects the measure might affect is uncertain, depending on how broadly the term “project” is construed by government agencies or courts.

However, the LAO also said in its analysis last year that “there would likely be relatively few projects large enough” to be affected by the measure. Projects costing more than $2 billion don’t come along every day.

Furthermore, the LAO said nothing in its analysis about disaster response. That is because emergency repairs are traditionally paid for by the federal government or other sources – not revenue bonds.

David Siders: 916-321-1215, @davidsiders