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Proposition 53


Perhaps one of the most controversial items on the November ballot for California voters is Proposition 53. It has both proponents and opponents, with spending on both sides headed toward more than $5 million.

What Proposition 53 says

Proposition 53 requires statewide voter approval before any revenue bonds can be issued or sold by the state for projects that are financed, owned, operated or managed by the state or any joint agency created by or including the state, if the bond amount exceeds $2 billion. It also prohibits dividing projects into multiple separate projects to avoid statewide voter approval requirement.

In simpler terms, a YES vote on this measure means: State revenue bonds totaling more than $2 billion for a project that is funded, owned, or managed by the state would require statewide voter approval.

A NO vote on this measure means: State revenue bonds could continue to be used without voter approval.

But with issues of prison reform, porn regulation and marijuana legalization also on the ballot, it’s been called the “sleeper initiative.”

The proposition came about after multi-millionaire Dean “Dino” Cortopassi decided he wanted to wage war against what he says is “pervasive government” debt and the “dubious accounting tricks that allow it to flourish.”

Cortopassi says he wants to change the way the state borrows money for public works.

“What I’m about is not taxes,” the 78-year-old told reporters last month in a press conference. “But I do understand arithmetic. This is about debt and the bills you don’t pay.”

Cortopassi, who largely works out of northern California, has put $4.5 million of his own money into Proposition 53.

The measure would force any state public works project that is financed by revenue bonds in excess of $2 billion to go to the public for vote.

These kinds of bonds that exceed $2 billion typically finance roads and highways, and state water projects.

Those opposing the proposition include the governor, the state’s Chamber of Commerce and the State Building and Construction Trade Council (BCTC). The latter is affiliated with the state’s trade unions. Its workers typically handle projects such as the $68 billion bullet train and the $15 billion twin tunnels project in the delta in the northern part of the state.

Chamber President Allan Zaremburg says there is nothing wrong with the existing laws that govern bonds.

And then there’s State Treasurer John Chiang, who says the proposition could hurt California’s credit rating and make it more difficult to issue bonds on public works projects, which include schools, roads and sewage plants.

Opponents to Proposition 53 have so far only managed to raise about half a million to fight the ballot item.

Another of the proposition’s opponents is Gov. Jerry Brown, who has said the proposition “threatens the economic well-being of northern California in a very profoundly serious way.”

When the governor refers to northern California, he is talking about the $15 billion twin tunnels project, which is designed to convey water through the Sacramento San Joaquin River Delta.

How bonds currently work

Under the current system, state revenue bonds do not require a public vote. They are paid off by the charges and fees generated from each individual project. For example, a water project gathers fees from entities that use it, such as homeowners and businesses.