By Marshall Smith

Proposition 68, titled the “Parks, Environment and Water Bond,” would allow the state to sell $4.1 billion in general obligation bonds to pay for improvements in water and park infrastructure — specifically for creating and rehabilitating state and local parks, natural resources protection projects and climate-adaptation projects. It appropriates money from the general fund to pay off bonds. It requires non-state matching funds for certain projects. And it requires annual audits.
Funds will be allocated in roughly equal parts to: 1) natural resource conservation and habitat resiliency ($1.5 billion), 2) parks and recreation ($1.3 billion) and 3) water ($1.3 billion), including flood protection, groundwater recharge and cleanup, safe drinking water and water recycling.

The proposition requires regular public reporting of how bond funds are spent and authorizes financial audits by state oversight agencies.

According to drafters of the measure, including state Sen. Kevin de Leon, D-24, Los Angeles, this is the first measure put before voters to correct for underinvestment in parks, wildlands and water systems in poorer communities. “We’re making the investment in our underserved communities a priority,” said Mary Creasman, state director of government affairs for the Trust for Public Land. “That’s different than what we’ve seen in the past.”

De Leon called the initiative the first bond measure to focus on “social equity,” improving and building recreational infrastructure in low-income communities in areas such as the Central Valley and the Inland Empire.

Prop 68 requires that between 15 and 20 percent of bond funds be dedicated to projects in communities with median household incomes less than 60 percent of statewide average, or about $39,980 in 2016. The largest single allocation of bond revenue, $725 million, would go toward “park-poor” neighborhoods in accordance with the 2008 Statewide Park Development and Community Revitalization Act’s competitive grant program.

Specifically, the initiative authorizes $725 million for creating and expanding safe neighborhood parks in park-poor neighborhoods; $200 million for per-capita grants to local governments for improving local parks; $15 million in grants to cities and districts in urbanized counties with populations of 200,000 or less for park and recreation services; $30 million in grants to regional park districts, counties, open-space districts, joint-powers authorities and eligible nonprofit organizations to restore and improve parks; and $218 million for restoring and preserving existing state-park facilities.

The measure also would redirect $100 million in unissued bonds from previously approved bond measures to similarly benefit underserved communities.

The non-partisan Legislative Analyst’s Office projects fiscal impact of $200 million annually over the next 40 years in state-bond repayment costs and savings to local governments, likely averaging several 10s of millions of dollars annually over the next few decades.

Supporters include the California Democratic Party, Gov. Jerry Brown, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsome and former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa of Los Angeles. Supporting organizations include the California Chamber of Commerce, the California State Parks Foundation, the Environmental Defense Fund, the League of California Cities, the Nature Conservancy, and the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California.

Opponents include Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, and state Sen. John Moorlach, R-37, portions of Orange County.

Editorial opinion throughout the state is generally favorable with the Los Angeles Times cautioning that, “There will always be an element of faith involved in borrowing. But the risk is not unreasonable, and not financing water bonds will leave the state unprepared for the future.” Editors add that with the measure, “The state would continue to spend 6 percent or less of any given year’s general fund revenues on bond interest payments [although] we can’t know for certain how much revenue the state will have in any given year.”

Since 2000, voters have authorized about $27 billion in general-obligation bonds in statewide elections to fund various natural resources projects, according to the LAO. Of this amount, about $9 billion remained available for new projects as of June 2017.