How is Measure L different from previous votes on transportation taxes?
People who have lived several years in Stanislaus County may remember Measure K in 2006, or Measure S in 2008. Both easily captured a majority of votes, but both fell shy of the steep two-thirds threshold needed for approval.
This year’s Measure L – again, seeking a half-percent raise in sales tax – may seem a little “here we go again” to some old-timers. But supporters, who want to elevate Stanislaus’ profile with smoother streets and an expanded transportation network, say they remember past failures and have incorporated lessons learned this time.
For starters, this year’s spending plan is not simply a long list of what elected leaders and bureaucrats want. It’s more of a reflection of what regular folks want, as gathered in dozens of outreach meetings all over the county, in focus groups and in public polling.
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What do people want? The same thing, apparently, that they wanted in the previous decade: better streets in their neighborhoods, and around town.
Giving people what they want
So, even though elected officials typically think big and tend to favor the dream of new highways crisscrossing the county, this time they’re bowing to the will of the people. While nearly 66 percent of tax proceeds 10 years ago would have gone toward regional projects, including new highways, that’s been reduced to 28 percent this year.
Conversely, Measure K in 2006 would have set aside 34 percent for local streets, including pothole repair and resurfacing neighborhood roads. This year’s spending plan for Measure L would give city councils control over 65 percent for those goals, including new or upgraded traffic signals.
You have to ask people what they want.
Vito Chiesa, Stanislaus County supervisor
Politicians sometime think they’re “the smartest people in the room, but you have to ask people what they want,” said Vito Chiesa, a county supervisor and one of Measure L’s most visible supporters.
If voters pass Measure L, sales tax would go up 5 cents for something priced at $10, 50 cents for a $100 item, and so on, raising about $960 million over 25 years, or $38 million a year.
A website makes it much easier this year for people anywhere in the county to see just what’s promised with Measure L.
What else is new this time?
Less vocal opposition this go-round
Most notably, the level of organized opposition.
The Stanislaus Taxpayers Association on Wednesday announced that its voting members have unanimously chosen to support Measure L, a startling reversal from years past when the group and others questioned whether government could be trusted with extra money.
“The reason we’re endorsing it is not because we’re enthusiastic about a new tax,” said Dave Thomas, association president. “My question is, do we want our streets to be better? My answer is, ‘Hell yes.’ How are they going to get better if we’ve got no money? Measure L might be the last time we get an opportunity to lock in tax revenues in an enterprise fund that can’t be violated.”
The county’s Democratic central committee has endorsed Measure L, to no one’s surprise – and to the surprise of many, so did the Stanislaus Republican Central Committee. Its conservative president, county Supervisor Jim DeMartini, even hosted a fundraiser for this year’s effort.
It’s true that former Modesto Councilman Bruce Frohman – in a vacuum created when the taxpayers association took a pass on submitting a ballot argument against Measure L – wrote one himself. He was motivated partly because he enjoys robust public debate and wanted to see more dialogue on such an important issue. “Someone has to be the conscience of good government,” he said.
Whenever that much money is involved, corruption is sure to pop up.
Bruce Frohman, Modesto councilman from 1999 to 2003
As for current elected officials, 51 of 52 representing the county and its nine cities formally approved Measure L this year – and the lone holdout has reversed her stance since and now supports it as well.
Turlock Councilwoman Amy Bublak initially wanted Turlock, whose voters rejected a road tax specific to Turlock last year, to show more effort fixing streets there. The Turlock council recently approved a slurry seal project and Bublak swung her support to Measure L.
Individual naysayers have seemed relatively few. For instance, brothers Rhett and Scott Calkins – both diametrically opposed to a planned bypass of Highway 132 west of downtown Modesto – have complained that presentations on Measure L to community groups throughout the county seem to stretch the rules, which allow sharing of information but prohibit government from formal advocacy. “It truly strikes me as propaganda because it’s absolutely one-sided,” Scott Calkins said at a Sept. 21 meeting of the Stanislaus Council of Governments, a transportation planning agency composed of elected officials from the county and all nine cities.
Public support also could be stronger this time, a recent poll suggested.
Narrow defeat in 2008
Measure S in 2008 lost by a slim margin: 389 votes, or less than three-tenths of 1 percent among the 155,535 people who voted that year. That total doesn’t count the 7,390 people who started marking ballots, but didn’t finish, perhaps fatigued when confronted with voting for president, several other offices, 12 state propositions and several local measures. If a fraction had simply voted to the end of their ballot, the outcome might have been different.
It’s good to get all the information out so people can make an educated decision.
Kendall Flint, consultant, Regional Government Strategies
This year, supporters are trying a new message: Vote for Measure L first, even though it’s far down on the voting card.
“It’s the one vote on their ballot that directly is going to improve their quality of life,” said Paul Van Konynenburg, a businessman spearheading private efforts. Choices for Congress or even president might get more attention, he said, but won’t change the weeds growing from cracks in your street like Measure L will.
It’s hard to estimate how much potential progress has been lost since the 2008 measure narrowly failed, because money set aside in so-called self-help counties – where voters have agreed to road taxes – can be leveraged to obtain state and federal grants, potentially doubling the spending power, or more.
For example, if Modestans embrace Measure L, it’s expected to bring $223 million to that city in its 25-year life. Officials estimate some of that money can be used to attract grants of $250 million, for total potential spending of $473 million.
“Let’s stop helping Los Angeles and San Francisco. Let’s help our own county and improve our quality of life,” said Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen of Riverbank, who at year’s end will return to office here as a county supervisor, having won election in June. She previously served on the Modesto City Council.
If you don’t vote for this, you’re voting to send your money to places you don’t live.
Paul Van Konynenburg, Modesto businessman
Modesto’s rating of 59 on the Pavement Condition Index, with 100 as best and 0 worst, is projected to drop to 25 in 25 years if City Hall continues spending only $2 million a year on maintenance. If Measure L passes, every street will be rebuilt or at least repaved three times in 25 years, officials say, because the city will get an extra $6.9 million a year just for road repair – and must continue spending that first $2 million as well. That “maintenance of effort” provision is one of Olsen’s favorite safeguards.
Of California’s 58 counties, 20 are self-help counties, but they tend to be urban places and contain 83 percent of the state’s population. Stanislaus is the state’s 16th-most populous, with about 540,000 people, and of the larger counties, only two – Kern and Ventura – have not adopted dedicated road taxes.
Merced County also seeking transportation tax
On the Nov. 8 ballot, 14 counties seek to either renew their previously approved transportation taxes, because they’re expiring, or to establish them. Stanislaus, Merced and Ventura fall in the latter group.
Another thing that hasn’t changed in eight years: money donated to help the measure pass.
Like last time, a majority of this year’s campaign money comes from those with financial stakes in the voting outcome, namely, civil engineers, transportation consultants and road-building firms, mostly from outside the region. As of Monday, Citizens for Better Roads and Safer Streets had collected $307,478, roughly similar to 2008 but with five weeks remaining.
Anything else new this year?
Knowing that voters throughout California are more likely to go along with taxes with certain guarantees, Measure L was crafted to prevent agencies, flush with new road money, from shifting the money they’re now spending on roads to other uses, such as hiring police officers. Also, an independent accountant would conduct yearly audits, a citizens’ oversight committee would be created with representatives from each community, and state officials would have no power to raid tax proceeds.
“To those who are simply fed up with government and don’t believe any dime will be spent well: Yeah, you’re right. The state and the feds haven’t spent our money well. We’ve all been victims. So let’s take matters into our own hands,” Olsen said. “Distrust? That’s exactly why you should support Measure L.”
1,367 Lane-miles of streets in Modesto – equal to the distance between the Mexican border in Texas, straight north to Canada.
The Modesto City Council on Tuesday went a step beyond with a unanimous vote to create another commission specific to Modesto, to oversee Measure L spending should it pass. The taxpayer association had strongly urged that safeguard and endorsed Measure L after the council’s action.
Rules for selecting Modesto’s 11-person committee were drafted to represent a broad spectrum of interests, including business, labor, neighborhood groups and taxpayer advocates, and prohibit city employees’ relatives as well as lobbyists. Those criteria were important to the taxpayers association, Thomas said.
“Everyone is unhappy with their streets,” Thomas said. “The evidence, to me, is overwhelming. Let’s get it done.”
Garth Stapley: 209-578-2390