Want to pass S? Take the low road

Maybe they're going about this all wrong.

Instead of putting up "Yes on S" signs, sending out mailers and doing PowerPoint presentations to community groups, the Measure S transportation tax proponents might consider campaigning the old-fashion American way: going negative.

Wherever the roads are crumbling -- pick your spot -- place signs that read, "This chuckhole and your next front-end alignment job are sponsored by the 'No on S' campaign."

Or where traffic backs up 25 cars deep at four-way stops, a sign that says, "Half a cent or one-half mph?"

Or a mailer attacking the naysayers. "Where's their plan to fix this mess?"

And why not? The Stanislaus County Taxpayers Association took out an ad in The Bee last week opposing Measure S, claiming, "It still doesn't add up. NO Swindle."

Politics in any form in this country generally involves deflection and spin, regardless of the facts. This time, the facts are in the transportation tax's favor, even if the odds of it passing probably aren't.

Fact: The county's roads, streets and highways are in disrepair, woefully ill-equipped to handle the amount of traffic produced by more than two decades of rampant growth.

Fact: They need to be fixed or rebuilt, and it's going to cost gobs of money.

Fact: Through a form of legalized blackmail perpetrated by the state and federal governments, the only way for a county to get that money is to have a self-help mechanism such as the proposed half-cent sales tax. Passing that tax, Stanislaus County Supervisor Jim DeMartini said, could unlock nearly $2 billion in matching funds.

Fact: It would cost consumers 50 cents on top of every $100 they pay in sales taxes. And the burden doesn't fall solely on Stanislaus County residents. Folks driving through the county on their way to Yosemite or Dodge Ridge, for example, would contribute to the cause whenever they stop to gas up, eat, stay or shop.

Fact: Counties whose voters passed these tax measures have better roads than we do.

But enter the "T" word -- or make that two "T" words: Taxes and trust.

That brings us to another fact: Some folks will never trust anyone who wants to raise taxes or impose new ones. Nor will they ever trust the folks entrusted with spending their money, because government has long been synonymous with wasteful spending. Count the Taxpayers Association among them. The group opposing Measure S helped derail a similar measure two years ago.

In 2006, Measure K failed to get the necessary two-thirds of the votes in no small part because enough voters believed its proponents couldn't be trusted to spend our tax dollars wisely. It was just another windfall for developers, opponents claimed, and Measure K backers did little to contradict them.

Since then, the roads have continued to deteriorate. So Measure K proponents resurrected the concept under a new name: Measure S. They've addressed many of the concerns that helped sink Measure K. During the Measure K campaign, one of the mailers offended some voters. It featured a photo of a vehicle involved in a fatal crash in which the road conditions played no part.

With Measure S, the mailers have promoted safer roads without the shock value and scare tactics. The mailers are localized, showing residents what projects would benefit their respective areas.

Also, over the 30-year life of Measure K, the county's nine cities would have received 24 percent of the take. The rest would have gone to other projects within Stanislaus County. Oakdale's City Council didn't support it.

With Measure S, proponents cut the term to 20 years. The nine cities would share half of the projected $700 million pot, the other half going to repair and expand county roads and state highways in Stanislaus County.

The emphasis shifted from pumping money into the Highway 99 corridor toward moving traffic east and west.

Those changes satisfied the Stanislaus County Republican Central Committee, which took no position on Measure K but endorses Measure S.

"That's the first time in history we've ever supported a tax increase," DeMartini said. "This one is substantially better than Measure K. This time, I've even contributed $5,000 toward it. I think it's the best thing for Stanislaus County."

It's the best plan they've seen, and the roads won't fix themselves while politicians and community leaders keep on arguing.

"I think it's fair to say it was the consensus of the group that the roads in the city and county were in such bad shape that something had to be done," said Republican Central Committee chair Joan Clendenin. "This was what was being offered and we'd go with it."

Yet even with the support of Clendenin, DeMartini and other noted anti-tax Republicans, Measure S faces huge obstacles. Aside from whatever damage the "No on S" campaign might inflict, the state of the economy makes a 20-year transportation tax a tough sell.

Stanislaus County residents are burdened by the same plummeting real estate values, job losses, high food and gas prices as the rest of the country. Most homeowners are paying for multiple local bonds in addition to their property taxes. And they're just as disgusted as other Americans about the bailout of that den of thieves known as Wall Street.

Now they're being asked to pay more -- albeit a half-cent at a time -- to rebuild and repair the roads.

"I don't know if there's ever a good time for a tax increase," DeMartini said. "But the tax is minor and the benefits are tremendous."

"This is what we've got," Clendenin added. "I think it will work. You're never going to find the perfect solution."

In the meantime, the "Yes on S" folks could make a fight of it by retaliating against the "No" campaign. After all, this is a presidential election year. It only makes sense to blame your opponent for the state of the country or even the country's roads.

The high road hasn't worked. They need to bash the bashers. It's the American way.

And it's much more entertaining.

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com or 578-2383.

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