Jeff Jardine

Voters picked anti-tax candidates, but then passed road tax, school bonds

You’ve heard the adage about hating Congress but loving your congressman?

Stanislaus County voters took it to another extreme Tuesday. In most races, they favored conservative candidates who promised to push for lower taxes. That included Republicans Donald Trump for president and Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, to retain his 10th Congressional District seat.

When it came to voting for the Measure L transportation tax and the various local school bond measures, though, every one appears to be headed toward passage.

The only local one that won’t pass is Newman’s Measure M, a special tax to build a community swimming pool, among other things. It received 57.6 percent of the vote, but needed two-thirds to pass.

In all other cases, while they might hate the concept, voters passed the tax or bond measure. That mindset extended to statewide issues, as well. Stanislaus County voters favored Proposition 51 for $9 billion in statewide school construction bonds. They favored Proposition 52 (hospital fees extension), Proposition 55 (education tax extension) and the Proposition 56 (tobacco tax).

Local school bonds traditionally pass here, from building new high schools in Modesto to the $326 million Measure E bond for the Yosemite Community College District in 2004, and numerous local school construction bonds throughout the Valley.

But the spending issue defying the norm is the Measure L self-help transportation tax. The half-percent sales tax is expected to raise $38 million a year for the next 25 years and will be used to repair local roads and streets, build sidewalks in the so-called county islands, help realign Highway 132 and other major roads and complete other transportation-related projects.

Attempts to win passage in 2006 and 2008 fell short of the two-thirds approval needed. Not this time, though. And perhaps what makes it unique is that when the ballots are certified, the measure will have passed in an election dominated by conservative votes.

More irony? In 2008, the county voted for liberal Democrats Barack Obama for president, Dennis Cardoza for Congress, and Cathleen Galgiani and John Eisenhut for Assembly seats. Yet Measure S, the road tax bid that year, failed by .68 of a percent.

So why did Measure L pass this time, and by a relatively comfortable margin? It needed 66.7 percent. As of Wednesday, it sat at 70.58 percent.

Whereas the previous attempts emphasized regional projects, proponents designed Measure L to meet the more immediate road repair needs of the nine local cities and Stanislaus County. They got the buy-in, or at least didn’t meet the organized resistance met by the previous measures. The Stanislaus Taxpayers Association, which opposed the previous efforts, supported this one. And organizers were finally able to convince voters that without a self-help tax, the state would use gas tax revenue generated here to build roads in counties already taxing themselves.

“I’m a pretty staunch Republican,” said Craig Lewis, a local real estate broker who worked for Measure L’s passage. “I don’t like taxes and I fit into that category (conservative). But if ever there was a tax worthwhile, it’s this one.”

Even so, some challenges loomed. On a ballot that included the presidential, congressional and other races, plus the 17 statewide propositions, Measure L was the very last item. Persuading voters to stay focused and get to the very end indeed was a concern, and the 4,716 “under” votes – those not cast on that issue compared to the number of ballots received – certainly merited that concern. And they had to overcome the stigma associated with the previous failures.

“Our polling said that 25 percent, no matter what, will tell you they are so frustrated with government that they were not going to support it,” said Paul Van Konynenburg, the Modesto businessman who led the Measure L campaign. “So we knew that one of four were not going to support it. There’s a natural cynicism and you’re not going to change that.”

That left reaching the other three of four and convincing them of the need to pass the tax.

“Our polling said we’d get 71 to 72 percent of the vote,” Van Konynenburg said.

Their polling turned out to be far more accurate than the Democrats’ in the presidential campaign Tuesday night.

“We put our heart and soul into it,” he said.

Lewis credits the voters this time for not painting Measure L with the same broad cynical brush as the previous attempts encountered.

“I think they chose to educate themselves,” he said. “They learned about Measure L and what it all means to them. We had to do something ourselves.”

Indeed, Valley voters might not be fans of new taxes, but they finally got sick enough of bad roads to do something about them.