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California homelessness measure’s razor-thin win signals growing voter fatigue

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — A key measure to combat homelessness personally backed by California Gov. Gavin Newsom has barely passed despite his multi-million-dollar campaign supporting it, reflecting voter fatigue and frustration about the crisis that continues to dog the state’s Democratic leadership.

Proposition 1 is touted by the Democratic governor as a linchpin to his plans to tackle the homelessness crisis in the state by boosting investments in housing and substance use programs. Newsom threw all of his political weight behind the measure, bringing on broad bipartisan support from lawmakers, mayors of big cities, first responders and hospitals and amassing at least $13 million to run promotional TV ads. The governor, who also convinced the Legislature to clear out the March ballot for the proposition, was more than confident about its passage earlier this year as the campaign faced little opposition. Yet the proposition squeaked by this week with a razor-thin margin 15 days after Election Day.

As of Thursday morning, the margin was less than 29,000 votes out of more than 7 million votes counted in the race.

The uncertainty had prompted Newsom to delay the annual State of the State address this week and urged voters whose ballots may have been rejected to fix their signatures. On Thursday, surrounded by a host of local and state officials, Newsom pointed to the near record-low voter turnout for the narrow win, saying he was “a little bit” surprised with the slim margin while taking a victory lap at a behavioral health center in the Los Angeles County area. Only about a third of 22 million registered voters turned in their ballots in the March primary.

“We didn’t take anything for granted,” Newsom said. “Change is hard, particularly in this space.”

With makeshift tents lining streets and disrupting businesses in communities across the state, homelessness has become one of the most frustrating issues in California and one sure to hound Newsom should he ever mount a national campaign. The state accounts for nearly a third of the homeless population in the United States; roughly 181,000 Californians are in need of housing. The state, with a current inventory of 5,500 beds, needs some 8,000 more units to treat mental health and addiction issues.

Newsom has made homelessness a political priority. His administration already has spent at least $22 billion on various programs to address the crisis, including $3.5 billion to convert rundown motels into homeless housing. California is also giving out $2 billion in grants to build more treatment facilities.

Under the proposition, counties will now be required to spend about two-thirds of the money from a voter-approved tax enacted in 2004 on millionaires for mental health services on housing and programs for homeless people with serious mental illnesses or substance abuse problems. The initiative also allows the state to borrow $6.38 billion to build 4,350 housing units, half of which will be reserved for veterans, and add 6,800 mental health and addiction treatment beds.

While voters have repeatedly named homelessness as a top issue in California, some are alarmed with the looming multibillion-dollar budget deficit and growing frustrated with Newsom’s administration spending billions to get people off the streets with little dramatic change. Brian Sobel, a political analyst, said Californians are experiencing “bond fatigues” after years of approving expensive ballot measures. The fact that the bond within the proposition would eventually cost upward $14 billion because of interests could have deterred voters from supporting it.

“People are waking up to the fact that we’re just incurring more and more debt and we don’t see a discernible difference in the quality of life,” Sobel said. “Because money’s not solving the problem in the eyes of Californians, they’re getting more and more reluctant to pass propositions.”

Primary elections also typically draw out “habitual voters,” who are more conservatives and more likely to reject any bond measure, said Sonoma State University political science professor David McCuan, who studies ballot measures. Republican voters who turned out to support presidential candidate Donald Trump and Senate candidate Steve Garvey, a former baseball player who was elevated by a multimillion-dollar campaign paid by his Democrat competitor Adam Schiff, also likely voted down the measure to send a message to Newsom, who made it a signature proposal. Democratic voters also didn’t turn out because there wasn’t “a sizzling race” to energize them, McCuan said.

“It absolutely is a political embarrassment for the governor, but they dodge a political bullet because it does pass,” McCuan said of the proposition.

The proposition could have seen a bigger margin if it had been placed on a general election ballot, but even Democrats were wary about the promises of the proposition this election, political professor Kimberly Nalder of California State University, Sacramento said a few days after the polls closed.

Democrats outnumber Republicans by a staggering 2-to-1 in California, and the borderline vote “does mean that some folks who normally would vote for Democrats, or maybe did on the same ballot, are voting against this,” Nalder said.

Opponents, including social service providers and county officials, said the change will threaten programs that are not solely focused on housing or drug treatment but keep people from becoming homeless in the first place. Critics said the single formula could mean rural counties such as Butte, with a homeless population of fewer than 1,300, would be required to divert the same percentage of funds to housing as urban counties such as San Francisco, which has a homeless population six times bigger.

The measure’s close win could signal more trouble ahead for Democratic leaders in Sacramento, who are still debating on which bond measures will make it to the November ballot. Lawmakers are considering a slew of bond proposals for housing, climate change and schools that could tally up to $80 billion.

“The demands on government now are going to be much more precise in terms of wanting demonstrated results, not just pie in the sky,” Sobel said.

The Associated Press