When Californians go to the polls March 2, they will be asked for the first time in the state's history to borrow money not to build something, but to pay off existing debts.
As the vote nears, both the long-term cost of the borrowing and the need for it are subjects of campaign debate.
Proposition 57, the $15 billion Economic Recovery Bond Act placed on the ballot by the Legislature, is a centerpiece of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's proposal to clean up the state's financial mess.
His political strategists acknowledge what polls have shown - many voters balk at a large debt that would not provide anything tangible, like a new school or a smooth highway, in return.
To persuade a majority to back the bond issue and its companion measure, Proposition 58 - a constitutional amendment restricting the state's ability to sell deficit bonds in the future - the governor and his supporters have begun a multimillion-dollar television and radio advertising blitz.
In those advertisements and in his campaign speeches, Schwarzenegger says the bond issue would save taxpayers money because it would "refinance past deficit borrowing at low interest rates." The bond issue is needed to clean up problems he inherited and would not add debts, the governor says.
Opponents, who include liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans, contend that the bond issue would cost, not save. Because payments would be stretched out over time, taxpayers would pay billions of dollars in additional interest, by some estimates $1,664 per household.
Borrowing to cover a budget deficit shifts the bill for today's spending onto tomorrow's taxpayers, a practice fiscal experts generally frown on unless the money is spent on something concrete, such as a bridge, that will be used by future taxpayers.
"My view is the bond issue is a way to spread the pain over time," said Stanford University economist John B. Shoven. "It doesn't get rid of the pain."
All sides agree that the state continues to face two serious budget problems: one short-term, the other long-term.
The long-term problem is that California's government programs cost more money than the state's tax system brings in, and they are likely to continue doing so for years.
The short-term problem is a huge current deficit, about 12 percent of this year's general fund.
Both problems grew out of the stock market collapse of 2001. Steady spending increases for education, health and human services, and tax relief during the boom years under former Govs. Gray Davis, a Democrat, and Pete Wilson, a Republican, were built on soaring personal income taxes. That source proved unreliable when the high-tech bubble burst.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.