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Businesses worry ballot measure could block funding of big projects

By Allen Young

A pending initiative that would require voter approval of financing for large public works projects is drawing fire. Some California businesses view it as a potential roadblock to improving infrastructure.

The No Blank Checks initiative, which is now gathering signatures for the 2016 ballot, would require any state revenue bond costing $2 billion or more to appear on the statewide ballot. The issue is timely, as state lawmakers prepare to look at financing options for California’s aging roads and bridges.

Revenue bonds currently are approved by the Legislature or state agencies without going to the ballot. They are repaid through revenue generated by a project – like tolls on a bridge. State law requires voter approval only for general obligation bonds, which are secured through regular payments out of the state general fund.

The California Chamber of Commerce announced its opposition on Wednesday to No Blank Checks out of worry that the measure would burden public projects with new costs and delays.

“This measure is dangerous for our economy and the safety of our citizens,” said Allan Zaremberg, president of the California Chamber, in a statement.

No Blank Checks could affect financing for the Delta tunnels project if the state were to attempt to pass a revenue bond backed by revenue from local water agencies, said Tom Ross, a consultant working with proponents for the measure.

It could also affect financing for the high-speed rail, if the state were to attempt to issue a revenue bond backed with cap-and-trade dollars.

“We’re closing a loophole that has been in existence for a long time, and a loophole that it looks like politicians want to use more of going forward,” said Ross, a partner with Meridian Pacific. “We think voters should have a say.”

The initiative is being bankrolled by Dean Cortopassi, an affluent Stockton-area farmer who has also directed his wealth at other efforts to limit the tunnels project. But Cortopassi’s focus with No Blank Checks is not on the tunnels, but on the state’s overall debt burden and the ability of state lawmakers to bypass voters on large deals involving public money, said Ross.

Proponents need to gather over 585,000 signatures by September 10 in order to qualify for the 2016 ballot. More than two thirds of that total have already been collected, said Ross, who said he is confident the measure will qualify.

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