Elections

Renewal rate impressive for transportation taxes

Cracks in the pavement can be seen here at K and 9th Streets in Modesto, Tuesday.  Some officials are looking to a transportation sales tax for money to fix such problems.
Cracks in the pavement can be seen here at K and 9th Streets in Modesto, Tuesday. Some officials are looking to a transportation sales tax for money to fix such problems. Modesto Bee

Voters living with higher sales taxes throughout California seem to have few problems with buyer's remorse.

When asked to renew sales tax increases dedicated to transportation projects a few years after initial approval, most people say yes. In almost every case, a sizable number of former opponents converted after seeing the benefits.

A Bee review of voting patterns in the 14 California counties that have tried renewing transportation taxes shows that all but one succeeded. Yes-votes skyrocketed an average of nearly 20 percent the second time around.

Most of the 19 counties with transportation taxes initially approved them with a simple majority. The 13 that renewed did so after a change in the law that boosted the threshold to more than two-thirds, a much tougher challenge.

Santa Barbara is the only county whose renewal tanked, in 2006 -- the same day that Stanislaus and Merced counties failed to persuade two-thirds of the voters to adopt a half-cent sales tax increase for transportation.

The impressive renewal rate "is very significant," said Bill Hamm, former California legislative analyst and co-author of the recently released "The Self-Help Program: A Better Way to Deliver Local Transportation Projects."

He noted that most self-help taxes are designed to expire someday. For example, Stanislaus County's Measure S, if approved in November, would sunset in 20 years after raising about $700 million.

"When you think about it, it's not terribly surprising" Hamm continued. "(Transportation leaders) know they're going to have to go back to voters and give accountability. There is a strong economic incentive to listen to the residents and put a priority on projects most important to those residents."

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