Final spending reports are in from last year’s political campaigns, so it’s time to see whether Measure L – the transportation tax rejected by voters in two previous attempts – owed its long-sought success to big spending.
The answer: Maybe.
It’s true that supporters raised and spent a lot more private money this time ($644,441) compared to 2006 ($387,636) and 2008 ($512,146).
But money tells only part of the story. Other important factors range from piggybacking on a superheated presidential election and targeted social media advertising to unity among local politicians promising specific projects if people would finally accept Measure L.
“This victory had a lot of components,” said Paul Van Konynenburg, a Modesto businessman in charge of rallying support. “I don’t think it was any one thing. It took the whole county pulling together, everyone rowing in the same direction.”
Carol Whiteside, a political consultant and former Modesto mayor, said, “It came down to a microstrategy of targeting where the opposition was and responding to people’s concerns.”
$960 million Expected proceeds from Measure L over 25 years
$38 million Expected yearly proceeds from Measure L
Shoppers in April started paying a half-percent more, or 5 cents for something priced at $10, 50 cents for a $100 item, and so on. It’s expected to raise about $960 million over 25 years, or $38 million a year.
Projects funded at least in part by Measure L proceeds are well underway in Oakdale and Salida, with several more coming in the fall. Available road money in some cases will double because of Senate Bill 1, the $54 billion tax legislation that Gov. Brown signed in April. With SB 1 and Measure L, Modesto’s road spending is expected to jump from $2 million a year to about $15 million.
A breakdown of elements crucial to Measure L’s passage:
Spending more than a half-million dollars in 2008 and losing by a handful of votes was a gut punch. Measure L cheerleaders knew they had to raise even more this time, and they did.
The first coup came when Modesto-based Beard Land Improvement Co. stepped up with a $25,000 donation, and volunteered to spearhead fundraising.
“That set the tone,” Van Konynenburg said. “That started the ball rolling. Then I was able to go to the hospitals and say, `Here’s what we’re doing.’ and it had a domino effect.”
Doctors Medical Center and Memorial Medical Center came up with $25,000 each.
As in 2006 and 2008, some of Measure L’s largest contributions came from companies most likely to benefit from road projects, or those who would design and build them. They include heavy construction firms, civil engineers and labor unions, some from far away.
But Measure L also wrangled big bucks out of local businesses, including $10,000 each from MTC Distributing and Boyett Petroleum, both in Modesto.
In the end, supporters spent $644,441 persuading people that Measure L was the real deal. That comes to $5.30 per “yes” vote, a bump up from $4.96 per vote in 2008.
The Measure L brain trust put much faith in young and liberal voters, who tend to look more kindly on tax increases. Presidential elections without an incumbent tend to bring such voters out of the woodwork, which is why the last attempt for a Stanislaus transportation tax came when Barack Obama and John McCain squared off in 2008. It pulled a then-unheard-of 71 percent of voters to polls – nearly 30 points higher than Gov. Jerry Brown’s re-election in 2014, for example.
The 2016 race for the White House, with two unpopular candidates in Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, made Measure L supporters squeamish. They feared voters might stay away from the polls. But in the end, the decision proved to be brilliant, with an unprecedented 73-percent turnout.
“It was essential to hold it (on a ballot with) the highest possible turnout,” said Mike Lynch, a political consultant.
Some advocates trying to pass tax measures push for special elections, with nothing else on the ballot, hoping to draw only those with a strong interest in the subject. That’s a mistake, Lynch said.
There really is no good reason to have an election at a time when participation is limited.
Mike Lynch, political consultant
“There really is no good reason to have an election at a time when participation is limited,” he said. “Our elections ought to be the kind where the most people vote.”
Poll after poll suggested people are far more interested in fixing streets in their neighborhoods rather than building new highways. This time, leaders got the message and drew up spending plans for the county and all of its nine cities, pinpointing improvements to come. For example, Modesto and the county promised to repave nearly every street three times in Measure L’s 25-year lifespan, if voters would go along.
That signaled a change from previous attempts. While 34 percent of proceeds from Measure K in 2006 would have been reserved for local roads, Measure L 10 years later promised 65 percent.
It really does improve the value and livability of a neighborhood when your street is not horrible to drive on.
Paul Van Konynenburg, Modesto
“It really does improve the value and livability of a neighborhood when your street is not horrible to drive on,” Van Konynenburg said.
Measure L may have gotten an unintentional boost, he added, when people saw positive results from rebuilding high-profile Highway 99 interchanges at Pelandale and Kiernan avenues, and widening Kiernan north of Modesto. “I felt that helped build some credibility when people saw what was possible,” he said.
Lack of organized opposition
For the first time, tax supporters neutralized the Stanislaus Taxpayers Association, which surprised some with a vote of confidence in Measure L. The group came around when Modesto leaders agreed to create a citizens oversight committee to watch how every penny of proceeds is spent in that city; another committee will do the same for the county and all of its cities together.
Pulling the Stanislaus County Farm Bureau on board may have been just as important, because “they are an important gauge of acceptance for policies on the ballot,” Van Konynenburg said.
United political front
Do people listen to politicians?
They may have this time, when all 54 people elected to city councils and the county Board of Supervisors got behind Measure L.
“All 54 on the same page for the first time I can ever remember,” mused Vito Chiesa, a county supervisor. “That was amazing.”
Area representatives in the California Legislature also promoted Measure L, donating important sums and appearing together on commercials. Most active were Democrat Adam Gray in the Assembly and Republicans Kristin Olsen (then in the Assembly, later elected to the Stanislaus Board of Supervisors) and Sen. Anthony Cannella.
Online advertisements channeled to various voter groups were but a distant dream in the failed elections of 2006 and 2008. But by 2016, such targeted advertising, including social media spots, made Measure L commercials not only doable but affordable.
“The targeting ability in today’s campaigns is phenomenal,” Lynch said.
Leaders expect all communities to see projects popping up in coming weeks and months.
“There is going to be pain during the (construction) process,” Chiesa said. “But in the end, people will finally believe that politicos can deliver what they say. We proved that you can literally move mountains.”
Becoming a so-called self-help county “was like an elusive unicorn” before 2016, Chiesa continued. “You know it’s out there, but you just can’t find it.”
Until they did.
Garth Stapley: 209-578-2390