Dan Morain

Not just another rich guy with an idea

Dean Cortopassi in his office at his business, San Tomo, outside Stockton.
Dean Cortopassi in his office at his business, San Tomo, outside Stockton. dmorain@sacbee.com

You’ve heard the story before, or so you might think: Some rich guy comes up with an idea to reshape the state in his image, spends some of his pocket change to get it on the ballot, and the rest of us are left to sort it out.

Dean Cortopassi, Dino to his friends, is a wealthy guy with an idea. True to form, he and his wife, Joan, spent $4 million to place an initiative on the ballot next year; they can afford it. And there will be a mighty campaign to defeat it.

The implications of his initiative are not fully clear. I might vote against it, as I do most initiatives. But spend a few hours at Cortopassi’s spread amid orchards outside Stockton, and you could conclude that he’s not your run-of-the-mill up-from-nothing multimillionaire who only wants to hang onto his fortune.

He talks about hard choices, like the ones made by the leaders of the town where he was born, Stockton. Because of its bankruptcy, the city shuttered the library in his old east side neighborhood.

“The neighborhood has changed, but it is still the same,” he said. Many of the residents are immigrants and working stiffs, as when he lived there. They are, he says, the essence of what American democracy is about. They serve when called upon and follow the rules. Then as now, they don’t have clout.

“The city had to make hard choices,” Cortopassi said of the closure of his old neighborhood library. “When the hard choices have to be made, the money goes to those who have some political influence.”

California, he points out, is running up debt, $340 billion, according to a Legislative Analyst’s Office report. We won’t pay it off. But someone will, most likely his 10 grandchildren and ours, and that’s immoral, he says.

His solution: Retain consultants and lawyers at the Nielsen, Merksamer firm to write a ballot measure with the populist-sounding name, The No Blank Checks initiative.

The four-page initiative would create a constitutional amendment that would force a public vote whenever the state is preparing to borrow $2 billion or more for public works projects and repay it via revenue bonds.

There are caveats. The $2 billion would change with inflation. Cities, counties, school districts, special districts and community colleges would be exempt. Cortopassi says it wouldn’t apply to University of California projects, though the initiative doesn’t include a specific UC exemption.

Though the measure hasn’t officially qualified, Cortopassi’s consultants say they have enough signatures to put it on the 2016 ballot; $4 million buys lots of names.

A little refresher course is in order. Legislators place general obligation bonds on ballots to pay for popular projects. The voter-approved $7.5 billion water bond last November is an example.

Legislators authorize revenue bonds – the intended target of Cortopassi’s initiative – on their own by simple majority votes, and repay them from revenue from whatever project they finance. Think of a government-owned parking lot. Users pay off construction costs.

Clever legislators and lobbyists have expanded the definition of revenue bonds to apply to many projects that are tough sells. No voter wants to spend on prisons, for example. So lawmakers rewrote the law to finance prison construction with revenue bonds.

Cortopassi says the measure is not aimed at any specific project, but he clearly dislikes Gov. Jerry Brown’s twin tunnels project, and derides the high-speed rail as a “train to nowhere.”

“I’m saying it will affect all future big-ticket revenue bond projects,” he said.

Cortopassi and Robbie Hunter might like one another. They’re smart, down-to-earth sorts who worked hard for their success. But next year, Hunter will devote whatever it takes to defeating Cortopassi’s initiative. He runs the State Building and Construction Trades Council, whose hard-hat union members are building high-speed rail and will build the tunnels if it gets the permits.

“This will affect transportation. This will affect water,” Hunter said. “It is a dangerous thing.”

Hunter’s campaign partner will be Allan Zaremberg, president of the California Chamber of Commerce. The chamber supports the Delta tunnels and many public works projects that would be funded by revenue bonds.

“Who are you protecting here?” Zaremberg said of the initiative. “It’s not the taxpayers, because they’re not at risk by a revenue bond.”

The rap on Cortopassi is that he is a wealthy Delta farmer whose business would be damaged by the tunnels. He says no more than 5 percent of his income comes from Delta operations. Far more comes from olives, apples, peaches, walnuts, cherries and a Modesto tomato cannery.

Cortopassi realizes the campaign will be tough. He shrugs. The worst that can happen is he’ll lose. He returns to his points: the immorality of placing debt on future generations, and hard choices government makes. He’s clearly sincere.

As government goes more deeply into debt, he reasons, the state will need to raise money, and will make hard choices. If his taxes get raised, he’ll pay without changing his lifestyle. Need to fix roads? Raise gasoline taxes. Need to pay for cost overruns on the Bay Bridge? Raise tolls.

The dollar-here, dollar-there charges fall heaviest on the people who can least afford to pay, the ones who don’t have much clout. They’re the sorts of people who live on the east side of Stockton, the sort who would use a public library to better themselves and their kids, if it were open.

Of course, Cortopassi could pay to reopen the library himself, and spare voters from having to sort out his initiative.

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