SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – Californians in recent decades have gladly opened up the vault for education, including a $9 billion bond in 2016. But last week, voters shunned endorsements from business groups and Democratic leaders and rejected the largest proposed school construction bond in state history – and some wonder if a fake news blitz is to blame.
As of Friday, just 46% voted in favor of the education bond, causing The Associated Press to call the race even as over 1.5 million ballots remain uncounted.
“Based on current vote totals, it appears Proposition 13 will fall short of the required 50% threshold,” said Jim DeBoo Wednesday, proponents’ campaign manager. “Nevertheless, safe and adequate facilities for California’s schoolchildren remain an urgent priority, and we recommit ourselves to meeting that challenge.”
Opponents took the bond’s defeat as proof Californians are becoming fed up with both mega-bonds and new tax proposals.
“It’s a broad recognition of the fact California is a very overtaxed and overregulated state,” said Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association. “I think people are just tired of it.”
Proposition 13 backers, including Democratic Assemblyman Patrick O’Donnell, claim a potent combination of voter confusion and viral social media narratives doomed the bond’s chances.
“The title created a lot of confusion with voters across the state, and when voters are confused they tend to vote no,” said O’Donnell, who sponsored legislation to place the bond on the ballot.
The only statewide measure on the March 3 ballot, Proposition 13 would have divvied up $9 billion to preschool and K-12 districts and $2 billion each for the University of California, California State University and the community college system. Supporters pitched the massive bond as means to remove mold and asbestos from outdated campuses and retrofit them for earthquakes.
Gov. Gavin Newsom not only signed O’Donnell’s bill last fall, he spearheaded a $12 million fundraising effort and was able to court a lengthy list of supporters such as the California Chamber of Commerce, California Business Roundtable and the League of Women Voters of California. Just days before Super Tuesday, the Democratic governor was still offering the construction bond as a way to equalize the state’s education system by bringing new facilities to downtrodden regions.
The proposition even attracted national attention, as senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren both took time from the campaign trail to endorse it before the election.
Yet Newsom and the coalition’s efforts weren’t enough to prevent the first defeat of a state school bond in 26 years.
The Proposition 13 rejection, California conservatives hope, is a sign Golden State voters are ready to push back on tax hikes and tighten up their wallets.
The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, known for championing a 1978 proposition – also called Proposition 13 – which froze property tax rates and limited annual increases to 2%, took the mantle in defeating the education bond. It conducted a media blitz and released a series of radio ads just before the election, warning voters that Proposition 13 would “raise property taxes” and allow school districts to take on massive new debt.
Coupal says the taxpayers association was able to get through to millions of voters on just a $250,000 budget, a far cry from the supporters’ $12 million war chest. He called the opposition effort a “grassroots, guerrilla campaign.”
“We were pretty much on our own,” Coupal said. “I think the kicker for us was talk radio…we didn’t turn down a single media request.”
Others claim the bond was destined for failure because it shared a proposition number with the iconic property tax measure pushed by Coupal’s group decades ago. Combined with the fact voters will have an opportunity to approve real fundamental changes to the property tax in November, it’s easy to see how voters may have had trouble deciphering their ballots.
O’Donnell says he knew the title was a problem after speaking with puzzled Democratic-oriented groups in his district in the weeks before Election Day. He also believes the flood of social media posts that falsely linked the school bond to the 1978 Proposition 13 played a key role.
“It’s very easy to manufacture a fake story and make it go viral,” O’Donnell said. “I learned about fake news firsthand, and I’m convinced there were some groups that promoted fake news.”
The Yes on Prop 13 group tried to combat the flood of Facebook posts and group messages with advertisements urging voters not to be “misled by trolls and bots.” Looking to prevent a similar scenario down the line, O’Donnell has introduced a bill that would “retire” the ballot number and make sure it won’t be assigned to future statewide initiatives.
Retiring the ballot number is something the taxpayer association has also pursued albeit unsuccessfully over the past decades.
“We have sponsored legislation to retire the number 13 and have been consistently shot down by the majority party,” Coupal says. “If they now find religion, that’s great.”
As for November, O’Donnell says another try at an education bond isn’t in the works, but that “anything is possible.”
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.