Tag Archive for Michigan ban on Capital Appreciation Bond sales

2013 Annual Conference of California League of Bond Oversight Committees Highlights Current Controversies on Municipal Bond Sales for Schools (and High-Speed Rail)

I’m on the Advisory Board of the California League of Bond Oversight Committees (CalBOC), which held its annual conference today (May 10, 2013) in Sacramento. To improve public accountability for California K-12 and community college construction programs funded by money borrowed through bond sales, this non-partisan organization improves the training and resources available to bond oversight committees; educates the state legislature, local school boards, and the public about the oversight and reporting authority of bond oversight committees; and advocates on a state level, where appropriate, on issues of common concern to bond oversight committees.

California League of Bond Oversight Committees Logo 2013

Citizens’ Bond Oversight Committees were established through a section of Proposition 39 in 2000 that became California Education Code Sections 15278-15282Michael Day, president and co-founder of the California League of Bond Oversight Committees, said that attendees should “go with the knowledge that you’re doing good things” as ordinary California citizens. Day kicked off the 2013 conference by asserting that “spending wisely shouldn’t be a partisan issue.” (I would have added that spending foolishly doesn’t seem to be a partisan issue.)

Presenting first at the conference were two finance and business administrators from the Santa Ana Unified School District, which is getting criticized for borrowing $35 million in 2009 by selling Capital Appreciation Bonds at an almost 10:1 debt-service-to-principal ratio. In addition to suggesting that Capital Appreciation Bond sales can be a valid business decision under certain conditions, they insinuated that school districts know best how to sell their bonds, and perhaps the state legislature is needlessly interfering in their own local affairs. To boost their case, they asked two rhetorical questions to show the arbitrary nature of the provisions in Assembly Bill 182 that would restrict school district sales of Capital Appreciation Bonds:

1. What’s the proper maximum maturity period for school bonds?

(AB 182 proposes 25 years)

2. What’s the proper maximum ratio of debt-service-to-principal on school bonds?

(AB 182 proposes 4:1)

Following their presentation was Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan (D-San Ramon), who introduced Assembly Bill 182 to restrict the sale of Capital Appreciation Bonds. (The bill passed the Assembly on April 8, 2013 with a 75-0 vote.) Catching my attention during her speech was her assertion that the legislature should expand state-mandated performance reviews for school bond measures to include such items as an examination of the school district’s labor compliance program. Knowing how the old labor compliance program laws and regulations had changed starting in 2009, I asked what she meant. Assemblywoman Buchanan said that the State Allocation Board had discovered that some school districts had applied for and received state reimbursement for labor compliance program expenses but weren’t actually following the state requirements and didn’t deserve the reimbursement.

California State Treasurer Bill Lockyer Speaks at 2013 California League of Bond Oversight Committees Conference

California State Treasurer Bill Lockyer speaks at the 2013 California League of Bond Oversight Committees annual conference.

California State Treasurer Bill Lockyer was the keynote speaker. He declared that the Poway Unified School District officials who engineered its notorious 2009 Capital Appreciation Bond sales were “stupid” and should be fired or recalled. Many people in the meeting room clapped in response, although I don’t know what the representatives from the Poway Unified School District did.

Lockyer sees “a whole industry that lives off of this” scheme for Capital Appreciation Bonds and detects “an odor” of underwriters and other financial management firms engaged in “corrupt practices” and taking advantage of school districts through bond sales. He said he heard a story about how an underwriting firm turned down a school district’s request for handling a ill-advised, foolish Capital Appreciation Bond sale, and then the school district asked another firm with fewer scruples, which was pleased to do it for a fee.

Lockyer noted that the 4:1 debt service to principal ratio for school bonds indicated in Assembly Bill 182 was a political compromise among various parties, including some special interests that demanded either absurd ratios (such as 9:1) or no ratio at all. He actually supports an outright ban on Capital Appreciation Bond sales by school districts. (Michigan enacted such a ban in 1994.)

At the March 18, 2013 meeting of the board of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, chairman Dan Richard told me to ask the State Treasurer about the details of the bond sales for the California High-Speed Passenger Train for the 21st Century. So I was ready with the first question for Bill Lockyer: when will the authorized High-Speed Rail bonds be sold, what will be the rate, will they be 35-year bonds as authorized, and will some of them be sold as Capital Appreciation Bonds?

Lockyer answered by revealing that California High-Speed Rail bonds will not be issued separately but will be “mixed in” with general state bond sales (such as the state bond sales in mid-April 2013). Then to my surprise, he said that a small amount of the high-speed rail bonds had already been sold! I sent out a tweet that’s now getting some attention:

California Treasurer Bill Lockyer says small amount of bonds for California High-Speed Rail have been sold already. Did anyone know this?

He also told me that the market sets the rates – a clever answer from an experienced politician who knows how to evade the tough questions.

Regarding state K-12 school bonds, Lockyer said about $2 billion was left from the state school bond measures approved in the 2000s and that it was likely that the state legislature would put another school construction bond measure on the November 2014 ballot. (Three school bond measures approved by California voters in 2002, 2004, and 2006 authorized the state to borrow $35.8 billion by selling bonds. The State Allocation Board disperses the grants.)

Finally, in response to an excellent question from Kern County Taxpayers Association executive director Mike Turnipseed, Lockyer said that perhaps some of very old voter authorizations for bond sales that never happened in the end could be “erased” or cancelled, thus eliminating the state’s liability for repaying the principal on those bonds.

Kevin Carlin of the Carlin Law Group in San Diego made a presentation about single-source alternative construction procurement methods, including design-build and lease-leaseback. The presentation was routine until he began advancing his view that there’s a “proliferation of illegal lease-leaseback school contracting” in California and cited the Sweetwater Unified School District in Chula Vista as an example. A vocal faction in the audience – primarily school district officials and an attorney for school districts – disputed these claims. During the question-and-answer session, I told Carlin that his only ally in the state legislature was the self-interested Professional Engineers in California Government union and that his best chance for addressing the problem was to add provisions to law that ensure better public access to bidding and contract documents on design-build and lease-leaseback projects. (See California Public Contract Code Section 20133 (g).) Supporters of lease-leaseback complained that I wasn’t asking a question.

Joel Thurtell Speaks on Capital Appreciation Bonds at 2013 California League of Bond Oversight Committees Conference

Joel Thurtell speaks on Capital Appreciation Bonds at the 2013 California League of Bond Oversight Committees annual conference.

Retired Detroit Free Press reporter Joel Thurtell, now a blogger at www.JoelontheRoad.com, was the last speaker at the conference. His investigative report “Michigan Schools Load the Future with Debt” was the headline story in the April 5, 1993 Detroit Free Press, and it led to a 1994 state law banning Michigan school districts from selling Capital Appreciation Bonds.

One of the reasons why the article was effective in changing public policy was the directive of a Detroit Free Press editor to Thurtell to produce a “Big Graphic” showing the extent of Capital Appreciation Bond sales by Michigan school districts. Thurtell had to perform many days of tedious paper-based research at the state treasurer’s office in Lansing, but the result was stunning. (Likewise, I believe that the graphic elements of the www.VoiceofSanDiego.org articles on Capital Appreciation Bond sales by California school districts was a major factor in finally bringing state and national attention to the issue.)

In January 2009, Thurtell posted the text of his old Detroit Free Press articles on his web site. Nothing more happened with them until March 2012, when Alicia Minyen, a member of the Board of Directors of the California League of Bond Oversight Committees (CalBOC), found his articles with a web search using the terms “Capital Appreciation Bonds” and “ban.” At this time the word was beginning to spread about the astonishing 10:1 debt service to principal ratio for bonds sold in 2009 by the Poway Unified School District, and the Los Angeles County Treasurer was publicly warning against Capital Appreciation Bond sales.

Joel Thurtell and Alicia Minyen

Champions of fiscal responsibility: Joel Thurtell from Michigan and Alicia Minyen from California.

Minyen contacted Thurtell and then reported on what she learned at the 2012 California League of Bond Oversight Committees. I heard Minyen’s presentation on Capital Appreciation Bonds and then reported it on my blog on May 11, 2012 as Please Read This, Even If You Think Municipal Bonds Are Really BORING: We’re Setting Up the Next Generation of Californians to Pay Staggering Property Taxes, apparently being the first Californian to post a journalistic report on the web about this practice in California.

Thurtell noted today that the worst abuse of Capital Appreciation Bonds in Michigan was at a school district that even used bond proceeds to buy personal computers. I immediate thought about how California school districts are using bond proceeds to buy electronic tablets, with Los Angeles Unified School District and San Diego Unified School District being two prominent examples.

Michigan Reporter Joel Thurtell Provides Background on How Michigan Banned Capital Appreciation Bonds

UPDATE: Joel Thurtell has now posted (on his web site Joel on the Road) the “big graphic” – a table associated with his 1993 exposé of Michigan school districts selling Capital Appreciation Bonds (CABs). The table lists the Michigan school districts that sold Capital Appreciation Bonds, the amount of bonds sold, the amount of interest to be paid to investors, the length of time from sale to maturity, and the interest as a percentage of the principal (the amount borrowed).

To give readers an understandable comparison, the table also provides the numbers for a conventional mortgage at 7% for various time periods. (Try it at 4% today.)

These amounts and percentages are peanuts compared to what California K-12 and community college districts are selling as Capital Appreciation Bonds. Notice the highest percentages of interest to principal in Michigan school districts were 575% and 406%. In California, the Poway Unified School District’s 2011 bond sales were at 935%.

The next step in the process to ban California educational districts from selling Capital Appreciation Bonds is for someone to re-create this chart for California and circulate it widely.


Joel Thurtell (web site Joel on the Road) is the now-retired Detroit Free Press reporter whose intensively-researched 1993 articles about Michigan school districts borrowing money by selling Capital Appreciation Bonds were the catalyst for a 1994 Michigan ban on Capital Appreciation Bonds. Now he is working to make sure California citizens aren’t victimized by the same scam.

Through his blog, Joel Thurtell was the first reporter to publicly expose how California’s K-12 school districts and community college districts have been selling Capital Appreciation Bonds as a way to borrow money for school construction. His attention to this obscure but extremely costly and disingenuous method of borrowing money has been acknowledged by various news stories throughout California (Community College Districts’ Bonds Inflate Taxpayers’ Repayments– Sacramento Bee – August 22, 2012; High Cost of School Bond Shocks Poway – San Diego Union-Tribune – August 17, 2012; Kudos to Michigan Journalist on the Poway Bond Story– Voice of San Diego – August 8, 2012; Joel Thurtell Shames Poway, CA Financing– Daily Markets – August 10, 2012; School Bonds Could Trigger Fiscal Shock – Financial Times via CNBC – August 9, 2012)

The Voice of San Diego web newspaper finally managed to grab the attention of the state’s political leaders and news media with an article on August 8, 2012: Where Borrowing $105 Million Will Cost $1 Billion: Poway Schools – Voice of San Diego – August 6, 2012. I continue to believe that it was the Voice of San Diego’s simple pie chart of the Poway Unified School District’s bond repayments (designed by Keegan Kyle) that allowed this story to fly – give Mr. Kyle a Pulitzer.

I found out about Mr. Thurtell’s crusade to alert Californians to the Capital Appreciation Bond racket when his 1993 Detroit Free Press articles were referenced by Mt. Diablo Unified School District 2010 Measure C Citizens Bond Oversight Committee member Alicia Minyen at the California League of Bond Oversight Committees annual conference on May 9. I wrote about the presentation about Capital Appreciation Bonds at this conference in a couple of mid-May blog posts, which have received a consistent trickle of attention since then.

Now, with San Diego County Treasurer Dan McAllister promoting an outline of possible legislation to restrict the sale of Capital Appreciation Bonds in California, Joel Thurtell has posted Public Act 278, the 1994 law that banned Michigan school districts from selling Capital Appreciation Bonds. He indicates that the relevant sections are 380.1352a (Borrowing money and issuing bonds); 380.1351b (Appreciation or sale at discount); and 380.1352 (Borrowing or issuing bonds; contract for legal representation).

Joel Thurtell has also posted the text of most of his 1993 Detroit Free Press articles about Capital Appreciation Bond sales by Michigan school districts, although as of August 26, 2012 he was still preparing additional unpublished text from the first article, dated April 5, 1993, and related charts published in the newspaper.

This Michigan law banning the sale of Capital Appreciation Bonds was enacted shortly before major newspapers and most state legislative web sites began posting content electronically on the web. (For example, the Michigan and California legislative web sites post bills starting with the 1995 sessions.) Try to research any state or local public policy activity before 1995, and everything is a lot more difficult! Thank you to Joel Thurtell for taking the time to provide public access to how the people of Michigan handled the Capital Appreciation Bond sales in their school districts in the early 1990s.