California voters should get their say on multibillion-dollar projects

Gov. Jerry Brown carries notebook paper outlining his proposed 2016-17 budget after a news conference at the state Capitol on Jan. 7.
Gov. Jerry Brown carries notebook paper outlining his proposed 2016-17 budget after a news conference at the state Capitol on Jan. 7.

Gov. Jerry Brown’s prudent approach to dedicating money to the state’s rainy-day fund helps us prepare for the worst. However, California’s overall debt load – more than $330 billion – continues to be a major problem. And politicians are getting increasingly clever as they spend taxpayer money with little oversight.

One mechanism used to get around the voters is revenue bonds. Politicians and Capitol insiders are using revenue bonds for multibillion-dollar projects, resulting in higher interest costs while leaving voters completely out of the process.

Fortunately, we will have the opportunity to vote on an initiative in November that would give Californians the right to vote on revenue bond debt. If it passes, voters will get a say before politicians put us further in debt.

The Protect Your Right to Vote on Bonds initiative is straightforward; it gives Californians the right to vote on state revenue bond projects costing more than $2 billion. It only applies to the state’s biggest projects, as they are most likely to impact more Californians. Subjecting these projects to voter scrutiny will minimize giant cost overruns that lead to more public debt.

Unfortunately, critics of the initiative are spreading false information in hopes of scaring voters. Earlier this month, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom voiced his opposition to the measure, claiming that it would interfere with funding for responding to natural disasters.

That is simply not true. Natural disaster relief funding is the responsibility of the federal government, not state revenue bonds.

As a former Sacramento County sheriff, I know how important it is to prepare for the worst. But this measure absolutely does not hinder our ability to repair and rebuild California after a natural disaster.

After a disaster, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is required by law to provide no less than 75 percent of aid. Additionally, the Federal Highway Administration provides 100 percent of funding to repair damaged highways.

California supplements federal aid through general tax revenue, including general obligation bonds that are repaid from the general fund. For example, after the 1994 Northridge earthquake, voters approved Proposition 192, a general obligation bond measure providing funding for reconstruction and replacement of state highways and bridges. The reason revenue bonds are not used is simple: Natural disasters don’t create a “revenue stream” to repay the bonds.

The bottom line is that the federal government provides the vast majority of disaster response funding, not the state. Any portion provided by the state comes from general tax sources, not revenue bonds – and certainly not revenue bonds in excess of $2 billion.

This initiative is a no-brainer. It gives voters a voice on the state’s biggest projects and holds politicians accountable.

John McGinness is a talk show host for KFBK radio and a former Sacramento County sheriff. He can be contacted at