Modern and reliable public works are key to California’s economic growth. Indeed, few activities by state and local governments can be more helpful to economic development than ongoing maintenance and expansion of the public infrastructure: roads, water facilities and sewers, and public buildings for schools, colleges, courthouses and jails. (This doesn’t include the privately-financed and operated but publicly regulated telecom and energy networks.)

State and local agencies spend billions every year on infrastructure, but population growth plus the age of the existing system, minus tight budgets and tax fatigue, equals an increasing gap between the legitimate need for new facilities and the revenues available to provide them.

Infrastructure isn’t exciting: we expect clean water to flow from the tap and a smooth road to school or work. But, inexorably, the condition and value of our current stock of public facilities is eroding. Instead of providing a competitive advantage for economic development, our infrastructure will become a drag on growth.

The solution – easier said than done – is to carefully assess the public works needs of the state over a reasonable time horizon, establish the most likely and appropriate funding sources, determine where technological and regulatory efficiencies can provide more bang for the buck, and conclude by deciding where and how additional revenues, if any, should be raised to fill the gap.

Unfortunately, instead of meeting this issue head-on, the Legislature is showing signs of backing into a non-strategy.

Smitten with the prospect of passing constitutional amendments with their respective supermajorities, the Assembly and the Senate between them are moving seven measures to lower local vote requirements for numerous local taxes, including several that could finance infrastructure improvements.

Three of the proposals (ACA 3, ACA 8 and SCA 7) would reduce the vote requirement to pass local general obligation bonds (backed by a property tax increase) from two-thirds to 55 percent, targeting a variety of functions. Two measures  (SCA 4 and SCA 8) would allow voters to increase “special taxes” for transportation purposes by a 55% threshold. These measures would permit, for example, increased sales or parcel taxes to finance debt for transportation projects.

Two other proposals, SCA 9 and SCA 11, as well as ACA 3, would reduce the vote threshold for special taxes for operating revenues for various programs.

To be sure, there may be a case for lowering a local vote threshold for one or another tax to pay for local infrastructure, if the need is established and the tax is fair. But there are at least three reasons these active measures should all be rejected.

The Governor hinted at this approach in his January budget when he committed to releasing the 2013 Five-Year Infrastructure Plan later this year. The Administration’s stated objective is to lay out state infrastructure priorities and wean some of these programs from general obligation bonds. The new Transportation Agency, under the leadership of Secretary Brian Kelley, is already engaged in this task. Given how closely tied is the state-local fiscal relationship on infrastructure finance and projects, it only makes sense to consider these issues together, rather than looking at taxes and vote requirements ad hoc in individual bills.

ACA 8 is even more problematic. It provides easier access to property-tax funded debt finance for any local government, even fee-supported agencies like sewer and water districts. It would create a rush to occupy the new property tax base among overlapping city, county and special district agencies. ACA 8 is the ultimate example of cart-before-the-horse infrastructure finance.

There is no question that improving our public facilities, including updating state and local financing, is a key component of an economic recovery strategy.  Bill Hauck, former president of the California Business Roundtable and board member of California Forward, recently wrote, “According to recent estimates, the state will need to invest more than $700 billion over the next decade in public facilities to serve a growing population—upgrading school and university buildings, maintaining highways and public transit systems, and making the water system adequate, reliable and sustainable.”

But our economy and our workers will not see a net benefit if new taxes are enacted without ensuring they are the most efficiently targeted and will fill the legitimate needs of new public facilities.

Crossposted at

Follow Loren on Twitter: @KayeLoren