Voters across the country are facing the biggest off-year Election Day slate of bond proposals on record, with a total of 281 issues worth $8.15 billion set to appear on state and local governments' ballots Nov. 5.

This year's Election Day total dollar value is the fifth-largest in the post-World War II period, exceeded only by 1988 ($15.09 billion), 1990 (12.33 billion), 1986 ($9.07 billion), and 1986 ($8.77 billion), all of which were enlivened by presendentail or congressional elections.

The number of issues on the ballot this year, however, is the smallest since Nov. 5, 1985, when 275 proposals were voted upon.

The results of this year's elections may be disappointing, judging from the results of the last year's Election Day and this year's special elections of date. Voters approved only 41% of the $12.33 billion of bonds proposed on Election Day 1990 -- the lowest percentage of approvals since 1975 -- and in the first three quarters of 1991, they have approved only 60% of the $4.37 billion of bond issues on the ballots. By contrast, voters approved between 73% and 83% of bond referenda each year from 1984 through 1989.

The low approval of bonds on the ballot also may have been hurt by voters' perception such referenda as a form of taxation.

Responding to how voters may react to the heavy slate of ballot bonds, "It's hard call," said Catherine Spain, director of the federal liaison office of the Government Finance Research Association. "The 'no new taxes' phenomenon may have trickled down to the local level as well as an overall disgust with government."

But with so many cities and states in deep financial straits, bond issues may be the only way they can finance much-needed capital improvements. A survey conducted by the National League of Cities found that one in four cities faced a budget gap of more than 5% of this year.

And the U.S. Conference of Mayors surveyed 62 of its big-city members and found that 58% of them believe the current recession is worse than the 1981-1982 down-turn and 48% said they believe they have not yet hit bottom. Both surveys found that most cities are dealing with their budget problems by cutting spending and by increasing or imposing user fees and taxes.

Ms. Spain said that "with the deterioration of infrastructures, voters' understanding of the need to finance projects [through bond sales] has improved," which could make them more likely to approve the funding.

Elementary and high schools are by far the leading category for municapal bond elections, accounting for 123 issues totaling $2.14 billion. They are followed by general purpose and multipurpose issues, with 24 issues totaling $2.04 billion, and airports, with two issues totaling $1.56 billion.

Two states, Texas and Missouri, account for more than half of Election Day's bond volume, with 17 issues totaling $2.34 billion in the Lone Star State and nine issues worth $1.92 billion in the Show-Me State.

In Texas, residents will cast ballots statewide on a $1.1 billion general obligation issue for prison expansion and mental health facilities, including substance abuse centers. If approved, it would be the largest bond issue ever passed in the state.

Texas also will try for a second time this year to win approval for Proposition 13, which includes $300 million of GO bonds for student loans. The measure was defeated in a speacial election in August.

Another key Texas referendum is Proposition 11, which would allow the state to operate a lottery beginning in 1992. If that proposition doesn't pass. Texas would have to find another way to raise about $460 million in revenue for its 1992-93 budget.

In Missouri, St. Louis voters will decide the day's single largest bond proposal, a $1.5 billion issue to expand and modernize Lambert-St. Louis International Airport. On the state level is Proposition B, a $385 million education reform and tax measure that would provide new money for primary and secondary education. That proposal would make permanent a 1.5% tax increase on corporations with at least $100,000 in taxable net income, raise the state sales tax to 4.6% from 4.225%, boost the cigarette tax to 18 cents from 13 cents, and increase the tax on all otehr tobacco products by 10%.

Other major issues on the ballot include $737 million in Maricopa County, Ariz., for a variety of public facilities: $500 million in Houston as part of a record $3.1 billion, five-year capital improvement plan; and $500 million in Oakland County, Mich., for solid waste projects.

California and New York, the two states that dominated Election Day in 1990 with bond proposals of $5.31 billion and $2 billion, respectively, are relatively inactive this year. Virtually all of California's $854 million of proposed issues will be on local ballots, and New York has yet to report any bond elections at all.

New York voters will be asked, however, to vote on a statewide proposition to increase the state Job Development Corp.'s bonding authorization by $300 million. Another New York measure would end a 109-year-old state constitutional ban on tolls along New York's canals. The proposed amendment also would permit long-term leases for commercial development of state land along the 524-mile barge canal system.

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