Billions of dollars at stake in proposed ballot initiatives

Big-dollar combatants lined up Tuesday to get on California’s high-stakes ballot, as initiatives to speed up business tax assessments, boost taxes on the wealthy to pay for university students’ education and put the brakes on the $100 billion high-speed rail program were cleared for circulation.

The proposed ballot initiatives are aimed at a November ballot that already carries controversial propositions.

Those include an $11.14 billion borrowing for California water projects, a business-backed attempt to block unions’ payroll-deducted funds for political purposes and an attempt to let insurance companies charge more to insure applicants who have not maintained continuous coverage in the past.

Word that the high-speed rail initiative was cleared for circulation came on the same day that State Auditor Elaine Howele released a report on the high-speed rail project, in which she said the program’s funding had become increasingly risky and that project’s oversight was lax. The high-speed rail project, valued at between $98.1 billion and $117.6 billion, has secured about $12.5 billion of its funding.

“The success or failure of the program consequently depends upon the (High Speed Rail) Authority’s ability to obtain between $85.6 billion and $105.1 billion by 2033,” the report noted.

The ballot initiative would eliminate the High-Speed Rail Authority and bar the state from paying for high-speed rail, unless voters specifically authorize it in the future. The elimination of the program would result in a one-time loss to California of $3.3 billion in federal funds and save some $650 million in debt service, according to a state analysis.

The property tax initiative would require commercial property to be reassessed at fair market value every three years, and doubles the home owners tax exemption and renters credit. The measure would bring in an estimated $4 billion to the state.

The education initiative would boost income taxes on the wealthiest taxpayers, with a .7 percent increase on those with taxable incomes over $250,000 and 1.7 percent on those over $500,000.

The money raised through the new taxes, perhaps $2 billion annually beginning in the 2013-14 fiscal year, would be used to pay for tuition and fees for undergraduate, four-year college students.

Backers of each of the initiatives must collect the signatures of 807,615 registered voters – the number equal to eight percent of the total votes cast for governor in the 2010 gubernatorial election – in order to qualify each one for the ballot.

Proponents have 150 days to circulate petitions for this measure, meaning the signatures must be collected by June 21, 2012.

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