Skip to comments.Voters go on 'free money' bond frenzy: Approval of gov land buy-ups shows no sign of stopping
Posted on 02/01/2003 6:07:41 AM PST by JohnHuang2
While taxpayer groups for years have fought to keep taxes from spiraling into the stratosphere and property-rights advocates have waged desperate efforts to block legislation that increases government land-ownership, Americans, within the privacy of the voting booth, have been quietly thwarting such efforts by giving thumbs-up to an ever-increasing public debt. This instant cash has gone not only for infrastructure, but for land purchases by various jurisdictions, allowing public agencies to engage in all-out buying sprees of privately owned properties, moving these off the tax rolls and into government hands.
Since 1998, voters across the country have authorized state and local governments to borrow a whopping $25 billion solely for land acquisition: parks, greenways, wildlife corridors, nature preserves, buffer zones along creeks and other open space. Final figures of last year's election results indicate the trend shows no sign of slackening.
On Nov. 5, voters in 95 communities in 28 states approved ballot measures authorizing approximately $2.9 billion in funding to acquire and restore land for parks and open space, according to a recently released report by the San Francisco-based Trust for Public Land and the Land Trust Alliance, an umbrella support group for land conservancies.
The 95 successful measures were from a total of 112 conservation referenda on state and local ballots across the country: a passage rate of 85 percent. Moreover, at elections held on other dates during the year voters gave thumbs-up to 46 land measures out of 77, for a combined funding authorization of $2.8 billion.
All told, voters in 2002 OK'd a total of 141 out of 189 conservation measures (a passage rate of 75 percent) authorizing $5.7 billion for land buy-ups by government. In many cases, these local funds will be "matched" by federal funds, thereby increasing the amount of public money available for land.
The figures were compiled by LandVote, a joint project of the Trust for Public Land and the Land Trust Alliance, and posted at www.landvote.org, a special website where the data for the past three years are archived.
Most, but not all, of the measures tabulated by LandVote are bond measures: ballot questions authorizing a government to borrow money by selling bonds as a way to raise revenue. Local bond measures are usually repaid from property taxes; state issues, from general funds. Other measures tabulated by LandVote include property taxes and sales taxes. This is calculated over the life of the measure. In the case of bonds, this is usually 20 or 30 years.
Because many bond referenda are multi-purpose, with only a part of the proceeds dedicated for land buys, computer technicians at TPL have broken the measures into components, indicating as nearly as they can the specific amount earmarked for open space.
Their findings: The $2.9 billion approved Nov. 5 is a portion of some $6.9 billion approved by voters for all conservation-related purposes, including land acquisition and restoration. The year's 141 successful measures generated a nationwide grand total of $10 billion for land purchases and conservation-related purposes.
"2002 is another year of very strong voter support for open-space protection across the country," said TPL President Will Rogers in a news release. "At a time when the threshold for government spending and borrowing is rising, Americans continue to demonstrate that they will pay to protect the places that are special to them."
And pay they will. Three out of four statewide measures were approved, all with high price tags.
California: Proposition 50: Voters authorized a $3.4 billion bond measure, promoted as a water bond, with $1.5 billion earmarked for open space of mostly coastal properties in Southern California. Passed 55-45 percent.
A companion referendum, Proposition 51, was not a bond measure but would have set up a fund for transportation-related projects to be fed by diverting 30 percent of the revenues generated by a motor vehicle tax that normally goes into the general fund. It would have cost an estimated $20 billion over 20 years ($1 billion a year), with $2 billion for open space. Failed by a margin of 41-59 percent.
Earlier in the year, Golden State voters in the Mar. 5 primary election approved Proposition 40, a $2.6 billion bond measure with $2.3 billion of that dedicated for open space; promoted as an initiative for clean water, parks and coastal protection. Passed 57-43 percent.
Nevada: Question 1: $200 million for an assortment of "water quality" projects, with $89.5 million earmarked for land acquisition. Passed 59-31 percent.
Virginia: Question 2: $119 million parks and natural areas bond measure, with a component of $36.5 million for land to expand the state's 11 existing parks and parkland for three new ones and several nature preserves. The remainder is for building and repairing campgrounds, cabins, trails and other maintenance. Passed 69-31 percent.
In addition, across the country voters in referendum after referendum signaled their approval of land acquisition by government. Besides the $3.4 billion measure authorized by Californians with its $1.5 billion for open space, the amount authorized nationwide for open space was about $1 billion, with some measures topping Virginia's and Nevada's. Passage was generally by substantial margins. Some examples:
Strong local support
"I think it is evidence of a very strong local support for the use of tax dollars for land conservation," commented Andy McLeod, director of Conservation Finance with the Trust for Public Land, when contacted by WorldNetDaily.
"Most of the measures this November, with the exception of three [statewide ones], were county or municipal measures," he explained. "So it's really a grass-roots movement. And that is significant in that these are decisions at the ballot box that are being made locally based on a real connection that people see between their tax dollars and the positive effect. They see places disappearing to development. They see inadequate outdoor recreational resources. They recognize the threat to water supplies, and they're willing to do something about it. It's a very tangible result: buying land or protective interests in land."
Critics of government land acquisition policies and fiscal watchdogs have a different perspective. They claim that many voters perhaps most do not understand the full cost of a bond measure, nor that tax increases will necessarily follow.
First, taxes must be levied or raised to make up for the property taxes that are lost when land is bought by the government and removed from the tax rolls. Second, the face value of a bond on the ballot is simply the principal and does not include the interest, which generally exceeds the amount of proceeds generated by the sale of a bond. The total amount the debt-load must be repaid from state or local treasuries: in other words, from taxes.
Voters do not seem to realize this, some observers have remarked.
In an article he wrote shortly after the Nov. 5 election, Kenneth White, president of the Virginia Taxpayers Association in Lynchburg, Va., commented on the apparent dichotomy of the voters of his state in rejecting one bond measure but approving two others.
The first a half-cent increase to the existing 4.5-cent sales tax to pay for road construction in the northern counties and levied only in those counties was soundly defeated. But a $900 million education initiative for construction at high schools and colleges and the $119 million "parks and natural areas" bond both of which would be repaid with funds from the state treasury passed handily.
Why was this?
"The answer is simple: Free money!" White stated bluntly.
"In other words, where voters knew that the sales tax and transportation bond proposals would cost them money, they loudly said 'no!' But in the case of the education and parks bonds, citizens were told no tax increase would be involved, and [when] asked to explain, Gov. [Mark] Warner merely said orally [on a radio talk show], 'We'll just roll over the cash flow.' While the ballot statements did include the words, 'authorize the creation of debt for capital projects,' nowhere in the statements was any mention made of how much this debt would cost the taxpayers information that should be required by law!"
White maintains that just as purchasers of cars are told about interest rates and repayment costs, information of that kind should be given to voters when asking their approval of bond measures.
If it were, "then voters would generally realize the bonds are not 'free money', and will have to be paid back by taxpayers with interest," he wrote.
In Sacramento, Calif., Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association the budget watchdog group founded by the late tax-reform crusader seconded White's view that voters do not understand the full cost of a bond measure and overlook interest charges.
Depending on the kind of debt and the repayment period, you can figure the payoff at more than twice the amount of the face value of the bond, Coupal told WND. Using this rule of thumb, Proposition 47, a statewide school bond of nearly $13 billion, will cost $26 billion, he said. Proposition 50, the so-called water bond, $6.8 billion.
Nor are this year's election returns unique. In the last few years, Golden State voters have authorized a record debt load for a raft of purposes, not only for parks and open space. The resultant debt is having catastrophic impacts on budget processes at all levels of government.
"Let me throw a number at you," Coupal continued. "If you add in all the local school bonds and the two statewide bond measures that were passed in the March Primary, then add those to the bonds that were just passed, including the local bonds and the statewide bonds then double it because of the interest it's $100 billion. The taxpayers of California are now obligated for an additional $100 billion worth of debt to the debt that's already owed. And we think that may be conservative.
"That breaks out to about $3,300 per man, woman and child in the state of California. So let's assume you're a family of four, congratulations you just got a MasterCard bill of about 15 grand."
"It's a hugely expensive way to fund things," Coupal exclaimed. "You only get 50 cents on the dollar for the so-called benefit. This means that out of every dollar, 50 cents will not go to schools or whatever, but to banks and bond holders."
Applying that at the national level and looking only at the land bonds the $5.7 billion voters nationwide authorized this year will cost $11.4 billion; while the accumulated $25 billion in public debt-for-land that they've approved since 1998 will cost, in fact, $50 billion to pay off over the next 20, 30 or more years.
But ignorance of the true cost of bond measures isn't the only reason for their success, say opponents, who emphasized to WND the importance of money, citing the vast sums poured into campaign coffers to assure a measure's passage.
Money buys the necessary components of a modern campaign: signature gatherers, if needed, to get a measure on the ballot in the first place, consultants, opinion polls, reports, brochures and mailings, TV and radio ads, and telephone banks.
The National Audubon Society, Natural Resources Defense Council and other major national environmental groups contribute to campaigns for land referenda, boosting the efforts of local groups. The Nature Conservancy and Trust for Public Land are especially generous with their checkbooks.
Both TNC and TPL have 501(c)3, tax-exempt status from the IRS, which limits the amount of lobbying and money they can put into a campaign. To get around these restrictions, they have each set up sister organizations with 501(c)4 status that allow them to funnel hundreds of thousands, even millions, of dollars into favored efforts. The Nature Conservancy's lobbying arm is The Nature Conservancy Action Fund; TPL's is titled simply the Conservation Campaign, though in the Golden State it's specifically titled the California Conservation Campaign.
This 501(c)4 status "enables the organization to engage in more active support of specific ballot measures," says McLeod.
Baptists and bootleggers
Environmental groups are not the only heavy contributors to these land bond measures. Often their financial efforts are matched or exceeded by donors generally regarded as being on the opposite side of the ideological fence: developers. In the campaigns the two otherwise antagonistic sides cooperate in a standard "Baptist-bootlegger" alliance a relationship in which each of two sides work to achieve a shared goal, thereby protecting or advancing its own interest. The term comes from those Southern towns and counties where the sale of alcoholic beverages is outlawed and local Baptists and bootleggers for different reasons have a vested interest in keeping the county "dry." The bootleggers allegedly provide financial support to the churches, helping to carry out a common agenda.
That's part of the dynamic in the campaigns for open space measures: Two otherwise antagonistic groups share a goal of freeing-up tax dollars for land buying.
Two of the best examples in the last election of this kind of cooperation are from Florida and California, where developers and environmental nonprofits made hefty contributions, and the latter worked on strategies and promotion.
Collier County, Fla.: On Nov. 5, nearly 60 percent of the voters in this southwest Florida county said yes to a green-space acquisition program, authorizing county commissioners to issue $75 million in bonds for land preservation and its maintenance. The bonds will be repaid through a property-tax increase that amounts to $25 per $100,000 of taxable property. Proponents say this will generate $148 million over the next 10 years, which would be the amount needed to pay off principal and interest. The tax will end after 10 years, unless the voters reauthorize it.
The vote handed environmental advocates a "long-awaited victory," cheered the Naples Daily News, which had supported the measure, noting that in 1996 almost 60 percent of the voters had nixed a proposed sales-tax increase to pay for open space.
"They all said Collier County wouldn't tax themselves, but by God, when the case is made clearly, they're obviously willing to do that," said Ellin Goetz, chairwoman of Conservation Collier and Vote Conservation 2002, political action committees.
"People were much more sensitized to the change in Collier County," Goetz said. "They could see it, they could drive on the roads, and it was much more visible to them."
But John Grasmeier, media and communications spokesman with the Property Rights Action Committee, pointed out that the first proposed tax was a sales tax that everyone would pay, while this one was a property tax whose burden falls on a much smaller percentage of voters.
"People didn't vote to tax themselves," he said.
PRAC, a relatively new grass-roots group, was established to fight the ongoing land grab in Collier County. As WND reported in October, it was PRAC that stepped in at the last minute to offer its support and a rallying site for last year's Sawgrass Rebellion rally.
Grasmeier wondered whether the voters understood this was a to be a property-tax increase, since the words "property tax" and "increase" do not appear in the ballot language. Instead, its drafters employed the arcane phrase ad valorem, meaning "in proportion to the value."
Specifically, the ballot question asked: "Shall Collier County be authorized to acquire, preserve and manage environmentally sensitive lands for the protection of water resources, wildlife habitat and public open space by issuing bonds up to seventy-five million dollars payable from ad valorem taxes not exceeding one quarter of one mill for a period of 10 years and bearing interest at a rate not to exceed the maximum legal rate?"
"Here was a $75 million bond measure, like it was coming out of air. They didn't say it would come from property taxes; they said it would be taken from the ad valorem, Grassmeier exclaimed.
But the biggest factor, says Grasmeier, was the money: The campaign attracted some really big spenders. Nonprofit eco-groups, particularly land conservancies, and developers poured their donations into the pro-tax campaign.
"They [proponents] had a real slick advertising campaign, and it was financed by some of the biggest developers in the state of Florida," Grasmeier remarked. "Altogether, they spent nearly $200,000, and we had less than $5,000. That bought the slick mailings put together by an outside-the-state firm."
Grasmeier offered two likely reasons why developers would contribute to an effort like this, which casts them in the role of bootlegger to the eco-"Baptists."
"They'll have undevelopable properties that have wetlands that they [developers] can't do anything with; they can't build any structures on them," Grasmeier said. "Those will be bought from them. It's an investment for them. That's one thing.
"The other thing is that this is a payoff. When these developers go and buy property, unless you're quote-unquote 'green' you get sued out of existence. The way you become green is to give them money. You give money to the Nature Conservancy, the Conservancy of Southwest Florida. You pay them off. It's like a Mob protection racket."
Tax proponents made no secret of their finances, and even posted them on the Vote Conservation 2002 website.
Apparently they figured that if money is what it would take to prevent a repeat of the 1996 debacle, then money is what they better get. Contributions included $20,000 each from two major Florida developers: Bonita Bay and Barron Collier Partnership, and $10,000 from Premier Properties of Southwest Florida, followed by a number of smaller contributions.
The biggest contributions came from environmental groups. The Nature Conservancy Action Fund provided $43,693 in cash and in-kind contributions, making it second to the top donor, the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, which kicked in $60,000 in cash and in kind.
The Nature Conservancy brought in a high-powered Washington D.C.-based advertising and consulting firm it has used in other conservation campaigns throughout the country. The firm, BatesNeimand, boasts a string of victories in liberal causes from defending a physician-assisted suicide law in Oregon to getting out the homosexual vote in 2000, the Daily News reported.
BatesNeimand produced five brochures for mailing, the Daily News reported. One showed a picture of a construction site torn up by a bulldozer, placed next to a picture of a couple walking hand-in-hand along a beach. The caption read: "Protect the habitat of the average Collier resident." A second claimed: "Two things can help stop the bulldozing of over-development in Collier County: All of us and Conservation Collier."
But if anything is in short supply in Collier County, it is land to build homes on not because the undeveloped acreage isn't there, but because so much of it is in government hands, with more planned for lockup.
Kevin Lilly, a tax roll specialist in the county Property Appraiser's Office, told WND that of the 1.2 million acres of land in the county, the local, state and federal governments own approximately 64 percent of the land, with the feds owning 47 percent. Documents show that defined "acquisition areas" would boost the amount to 73.4 percent, with an eventual goal of 87.7 percent in government hands.
Property-rights activists say that insiders have told them the percentage of the county land base that's locked away could go as high as 90 percent.
This removal of land from the tax rolls spells an increase in both property values and taxes.
"We're looking at the property values and taxable values of the county, and they're continuing to go up," said Lilly. "And any time they take land out of the possibility of being developed it's going to put increased demand for the existing [available] property. That causes property values to increase. The additional tax that people will be paying for that is going to be reflected down the road in possibly higher assessments that they're going to be paying tax on as well."
California: Where you 'Pay to Play'
"Only in California would a $6.9 billion bond issue paying off the biggest developers up and down the state sport the name 'Water Security, Clean Drinking Water, Coastal and Beach Protection Act of 2002,'" quipped Anthony Pignataro, reporter for the Orange County Weekly newspaper.
That's the official name of Proposition 50, and it took megabucks from both "bootlegger" developers and "Baptist" eco-groups to secure its passage.
Over $4 million poured into campaign coffers, with the largest donations coming from environmental groups: The Nature Conservancy, the National Audubon Society, Trust for Public Land and its California Conservation Campaign, and the Planning and Conservation League, a Sacramento-based eco-lobbying organization with 501(c)4 status that was the driving force behind it.
PCL spearheaded not only Prop. 50, but the ill-fated Prop. 51, a "transportation" measure. It also lobbied and promoted three bills that the state legislature passed and voters subsequently approved Prop. 40, on the March 2002 ballot, and Propositions 12 and 13, on the March 2000 ballot. All five were either essentially land-acquisition measures or contained provisions for sizable land acquisitions.
Developers were heavy contributors to both Props. 50 and 51. But these weren't cases where solicited developers threw donations into a kitty to support an initiative already written. Instead, the Planning and Conservation League worked with developers it figured would be interested and wrote benefits for them into the ballot language, a tactic that's been dubbed "Pay to Play."
"The problem is, running these initiatives is so expensive," PCL executive director Gerald Meral told the Sacramento Bee. "People don't write you a check out of the goodness of their heart. There has to be something in it for them."
"We picked projects where we thought people might contribute," he has admitted frankly.
Prop. 50 authorized the sale of $3.4 billion in general obligation bonds to pay for a variety of allegedly water-related projects. But although TV ads and mailed brochures featured pictures of children and sparkling streams and water pouring from faucets, critics maintain the funds generated by the bond sales will do little or nothing to improve the state's water infrastructure or increase the supply of water.
The bulk of the money will go to various ecosystem restoration projects and to purchase land an action proponents say is necessary to protect the water supply. The purchase of coastal property near urban areas will cost $950 million, while $825 million goes to the Cal-Fed program that regulates land use in the Sacramento River Delta. Other land buy-up areas include coastal wetlands, land around Lake Tahoe, land in mountain ranges, land within watersheds and fish habitat. Fish habitat includes not only the water where fish actually live but land adjacent to rivers and lakes.
"It has so little to do with clean water it's incredible," Tom Rogers, a Prop. 50 critic and analyst told Pignataro. "It's all about land acquisition. The special interests have totally controlled getting it onto the ballot."
Rogers, one of the signers of the ballot argument against the water bond, expanded his comments when contacted by WorldNetDaily. He said his research showed that the name of the measure was selected in response to answers received through polls and at focus groups showing a public concern about water quality.
"They [the sponsors] said, 'OK, water. Let's use that word in the title.'" he declared. "It's a magic word, but if you use it, 54 percent of the people in this state will vote yes, even though [Prop. 50] has nothing to do with water. Absolutely nothing. There's nothing about water storage or water supply in it at all."
In fact, Prop. 50 prohibits the construction of reservoirs and water delivery systems, Rogers says.
"How are you going to get more water if you can't build more reservoirs?" he asked. "They put that in as a concession to the extreme environmental people who don't like dams."
Tess Dunham, California Farm Bureau director of water resources, agrees.
"This is the third time we're going to the voters, and we still have no water to show for it," she told the Sacramento Bee, referring to the earlier-approved Props. 40 and 13. "If they wanted to call this the land acquisition bond, that would have been a little more honest. This doesn't create any new water in California."
As a sop to critics like Rogers and Dunham, Prop. 50 allocated $50 million for studies about storage and possible reservoirs that might be built at a later date. It also provided $50 million for "security" an inducement added in response to public fears about terrorist attacks on water supplies.
Meral insists the initiative didn't "guarantee anything" for specific developers, but a person with the geographic and political landscapes of California and access through the Secretary of State's Office to campaign contribution information (which is public record and posted on the Internet) will be able to figure out who'll get what, Rogers said. Here are three of several he named:
Rogers is infuriated that those who stand to benefit from a citizen-sponsored initiative can literally buy their way onto the ballot. The first expenditure from the donations was for $1.2 million to a firm that hires people to gather the signatures needed for qualification, he said.
"To my knowledge, not one volunteer collected a single signature. It was all done through paid collectors. But that's the way the game is played it's enough to make a person cry."
It was the same with the ill-fated Prop. 51. Big donations paid to get the measure on the ballot and for the TV ads and mailings that promoted it. The "traffic congestion" referendum that would have cost a minimum of $20 billion over 20 years was loaded with goodies for big-time developers and was far more a public-works measure than a land acquisition one, with only $2 billion identified as being available for land purchases.
Unlike Prop. 50, that had the support of the League of Women Voters and a long list of environmental organizations, Prop. 51 drew cries of "corruption" from the LWV, enviros and taxpayer groups. The Sacramento Bee tagged it as "California's most corrupt ballot measure."
The press had a field day ridiculing it.
"Want a railroad right to your gambling casino, built with taxpayer money?" the Los Angeles Times asked. "Then pony up $250,000 to the Planning and Conservation League to get the organization's Proposition 51 on the Nov. 5 ballot. Want the state to buy your land in the Ballona Creek area land that cannot be developed? Donate $800,000 to the league. Want a $2 million golf cart path along El Toro Road to Leisure World? A highway interchange that will allow you to build thousands of new homes? Get out the checkbook."
Major newspapers in general opposed both initiatives since contributors aren't supposed to benefit quite so obviously from measures whose passage they've helped pay for. But though taxpayer groups spoke out against it, environmental organizations and the public were not as outraged by Prop. 50 as they were by its companion. Differences between the two may explain why one was firmly rejected, and not the other.
First, Prop. 51 would have built things: roads, railroads, freeway interchanges and similar publicc-works projects. This drew the attention and ire of green groups who resented pubic money being spent to provide infrastructure for residential subdivisions and other projects of which they disapproved in the first place. Because Prop. 50 was essentially for land acquisition and restoration, the payoffs buying land that contributing developers couldn't use and wanted to get rid of couldn't be faulted in and of themselves.
Second, the cost of Prop. 51 was obvious. It was not a bond measure, but approximately $1 billion a year would be automatically withdrawn from revenues collected from a specific tax and directed to various projects instead of going into the general fund. Every year at budget time, legislators and taxpayers would have to stand by, watching money go out the front door.
Not so with Prop. 50. As a bond measure the debt will be paid off quietly from the same general fund but out the back door as it were without drawing any more attention than have the interest payments for the billions of dollars of debt that have been authorized over the years.
As Kenneth White put it, it's "free money."
Mark, this is a good article that uses recent bond measures to prove that your observations are right on the money...a good read.
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