MODESTO — Transportation leaders were not terribly enthusiastic Wednesday about asking voters once again for a road tax, but took steps to put the effort in motion.
The idea rests on whether the threshold for raising local sales tax is lowered from two-thirds voter approval, or 66.67 percent, to 55 percent with an amendment to the state Constitution.
First, state legislators must agree to put the matter on a ballot, followed by approval from California voters. That seems unlikely before November 2014, and it's not clear whether a road tax for Stanislaus County could appear on the same ballot.
Much of Wednesday's discussion at the Stanislaus Council of Governments centered on potential strategy and procedural "what-ifs." No one mentioned bad timing for struggling families, and little was said about dire need to address deplorable street conditions, themes that have been debated since the last road tax effort.
Both previous campaigns would have cleared the 55 percent bar, noted StanCOG Chairman Charlie Goeken, Waterford's mayor. Measure K in 2006 captured 57.92 percent, improving to 66.42 percent with Measure S in 2008 barely shy of victory.
Leaders "should move rapidly" if legislators lower the threshold, Riverbank Mayor Richard O'Brien said. Other agencies will want to test the waters, and it's not wise to throw too many tax increases before voters, some leaders said.
The county's two largest cities, Modesto and Turlock, are exploring ballot measures to raise money for public safety and transportation, respectively.
Oakdale Councilman Mike Brennan suggested that his city, whose residents recently approved a sales tax increase for public safety, might provide insight on winning over voters. Ceres also has such a surtax.
Modesto Councilman Joe Muratore recommended asking the advice of businesspeople who championed the 2008 campaign.
That push may have suffered from promises of using half the money on future regional projects such as the North County Corridor or the Highway 132 bypass, said Carlos Yamzon, StanCOG's executive director. Studies suggest that voters prefer fixing existing roads, he said.
"Just be honest when you propose it," recommended Scott Calkins of Modesto, a Highway 132 bypass critic.
Goeken suggested that a standing StanCOG committee composed of city managers and the county's chief executive officer be asked to start developing a list of projects to put before voters.
A half-cent sales tax increase would boost the cost of a $10 item by 5 cents, by 50 cents for a $100 item and so on. The 2008 measure might have raised $700 million in 20 years, allowing leaders to leverage many times that amount in state and federal road money.
StanCOG members also approved new long-term forecasts for population, housing and jobs that aren't as ambitious as predictions two years ago. The new study lowers growth expectations for 2035 by 6 percent for population and 12 percent for employment.
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2390.