Different views of what that is in debate over road tax

Thousands of commuters headed to the Bay Area have watched crews widening Interstate 205 between Lathrop and Tracy. Expected to be finished in late 2008, I-205 will have three lanes in each direction.
Thousands of commuters headed to the Bay Area have watched crews widening Interstate 205 between Lathrop and Tracy. Expected to be finished in late 2008, I-205 will have three lanes in each direction. Modesto Bee

Arguments on both sides of Stanislaus County's transportation ballot measure focus on "bad."

Measure S supporters say the road tax is the last, best hope for fixing really bad streets and easing bad traffic.

Critics contend all new taxes are bad and leaders who have behaved badly can't be trusted with the proceeds, especially in a bad economy.

Can multiple negatives add up to a positive?

"It seems a matter of everyone holding their nose because there just isn't any better game in town," concludes Jack Heinsius, a Modesto Junior College economics instructor.

For the second time in two years, Stanislaus County voters are faced with raising their sales tax by a half-cent -- a bump to 7.875 percent for most of the county -- to benefit mostly road projects. That's 5 cents more on an item costing $10, 50 cents for $100 and so on.

Measure K in 2006 captured 57.92 percent of the vote -- a clear majority, but not enough to meet the two-thirds standard in California. Back then, officials with the Stanislaus Council of Governments dictated a 30-year spending plan and pushed forward despite Oakdale's cold feet.

This time, leaders in all nine cities and the county joined to push a 20-year tax increase predicted to raise $700 million, and each agency developed its own spending plan. Private sector champions are reaching out to community organizations, appearing at some 40 presentations. And they're walking precincts, often joined by elected officeholders during their off-hours.

"It's completely different" this year, county Supervisor Jeff Grover said.

Supporters prefer pitching the positives that could come from Measure S:

Safer streets and better access for public safety

Local control of the proceeds

Unanimous support from all agencies

Better chance at attracting companies and jobs

Leveraging matching state and federal funds

Nineteen of California's 58 counties have transportation taxes. None are looking back, officials say.

A recent independent study revealed that spending flexibility in so-called self-help counties allows delivery of promised road projects much faster by letting them turn to the private sector instead of relying on the California Department of Transportation.

Bee research shows voters who witness the results from transportation taxes are far and away more likely to renew such a tax or approve another. For example, "yes" votes in Fresno County jumped from 57.5 percent in 1986, when a simple majority sufficed, to 77 percent in 2006.

Measure S supporters somehow converted the Stanislaus County Republican Central Committee, previously vociferous in tax attacks. Supporters also established campaign committees in each of the 10 agencies. Members include notorious conservatives such as Supervisor Jim DeMartini and Turlock's Pat Shade.

And they lined up popular figures such as Modesto entrepreneur Dan Costa.

"We're taxed to death," conceded Shade, a GOP leader for more than four decades. "I've watched government take taxes and blow it in 14 different directions. But I do know, traveling around highways here, that we need help. Since they've designated only 1 percent for (administrative) overhead, and no one else can take the money, I said OK."

Half of the tax, or $350 million, would go to neighborhood roads throughout the county to fix potholes, widen streets and strengthen bridges. The remaining amount would help build major east-west corridors in the north, central and south parts of the county. All are spelled out, more or less, in a thick spending plan.

Supporters acknowledge that the timing is particularly bad, with banks and other businesses failing and congressional leaders scrambling to rescue the nation from recession. But those factors are beyond control, they say.

"You can't pick your relatives," Grover said.

But you can apply perspective. Grover noted that a family with a yearly income of $40,000 would be expected to spend about $10,000 on taxable items, generating $50 in road tax. That's a little more than $4 per month.

Paul Van Konynenburg, Measure S campaign co-chairman, said: "The money is worth it. Even in tough economic times, these are projects that are worth doing."

Detractors generally concede the point, agreeing that streets are crumbling from neglect. Their objections usually boil down to distaste of taxes and distrust of leaders.

"The county let library services go to hell on purpose, then stuffed the eighth-cent sales tax down our throats as blackmail," said Dave Thomas of the Stanislaus Taxpayers Association, referring to a tax increase for libraries approved in 1995 and renewed in 1999 and 2004. "The cities are doing the same thing. They've let (roads) become so severe an inconvenience, and now they're blackmailing us by saying there is no other way to fix the streets than for you to pay them."

In ballot statements against Measure S, former Modesto Councilman Bruce Frohman warns that leaders would subsidize developers and sprawl by improving access to new development areas. "Once you approve," Frohman wrote, "citizens can do little to stop the spending spree."

Supporters say they're trying to overcome fear with information.

"The (expenditure plan) is so specific, you don't have to trust anybody," Van Konynenburg said.

"They can't spend it any other way, by law," Grover added.

For extra protection, the ordinance establishes a citizens oversight committee.

But Frohman wonders, "Will politicians stack (it) with friends of developers?"

His friend and former slow-growth colleague on the Modesto Council, Denny Jackman, wrote last year's Measure E, also known as Stamp Out Sprawl, was embraced by voters upset with growth patterns throughout Stanislaus County. But even Jackman has thrown his weight behind Measure S.

Whether new promises, top-tier support and a desire for smooth driving are enough to overcome fear, an ailing economy and visceral anti-tax sentiment is anyone's guess, Heinsius said.

"We're giving it our best shot," Van Konynenburg said. "We're making the case that people have got to think of the long-term viability of their community."

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at gstapley@modbee.com or 578-2390.

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