One startling statistic from last fall’s municipal elections around California has not been lost on the state’s policymakers and would-be reformers: Fully 40 out of the 53 local tax or bond measures up for a vote in November passed, usually with supermajorities of 55 percent or more.
Of those needing a two-thirds majority, 69 percent passed – about 20 percent more than the usual percentage of successful local financing propositions.
The implications of this are startling in a day when one of the two major political parties has adopted a strict mantra of “no new taxes.” That’s no new taxes, no matter how great the need, no matter how compelling the cause on which the money would be spent.
One message of the new results, then, is that voters don’t necessarily agree that all taxes are new bad; they’ve said they are willing to shell out under certain circumstances.
The other message here is for Gov. Jerry Brown and the billionaires, labor union leaders, and others behind the five finance-related initiatives that have so far been proposed for next fall’s presidential election ballot.
That message: They must convince voters that unless at least one of the proposed tax or fee increases passes, they will be personally impacted in a major-league negative way.
This puts the focus on the usual difference in the way local and state ballot measures are perceived: Local school and transportation issues are always framed to let voters know precisely who will benefit if a measure passes and who will feel pain if it doesn’t. It can be very difficult to pin that kind of precise focus on a statewide measure, but the record indicates that’s what it takes to win passage for new taxes and/or fees. Nebulous doesn’t work.
Even the state’s leading anti-tax fighter sees it that way. Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn., told a reporter soon after the fall votes were in that “If I were running the ‘yes’ campaign for a tax at the state level, I would try to wrap it around public safety, fire, and local schools, knowing full well that anything perceived as a statewide tax increase is going to have rough sledding.”
So Brown and his cohorts are now on notice: They must show voters that a no vote on the temporary sales tax increase and the slight boost they want in tax rates for the ultra-wealthy would mean shorter hours and worse performance in their local public schools – and maybe even the end of the football and basketball teams. They must convince voters that nixing new money for the state means fewer police and firefighters, and, most likely, more felons loose on local streets.
That, in turn, dictates an advertising strategy very different and possibly more costly than what’s seen in the usual initiative campaign. Television ads will have to be localized, something that’s difficult in either the Los Angeles or San Francisco Bay areas, both home to scores of disparate cities and counties with vastly different budget problems. Some cities, like Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, Culver City and Hermosa Beach in Southern California, or like Atherton, Belmont and Alameda in the Bay Area, are not in anything like emergency situations. But the biggest cities in those areas, like Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Jose are beset with public employee pension woes and have seen major cutbacks.
So the emphasis of the yes campaign for any finance initiative that eventually makes the ballot could be less on regional television and more on mailers that pinpoint voters in individual cities and neighborhoods. This would have been impossible 20 years ago, but is very doable today.
Then there’s the matter of public trust. Election results over the past 10 years have consistently shown voters willing to open their wallets if they feel they know and/or trust the person or persons who will spend the money.
So Brown will likely go before the cameras, staring directly at voters and talking turkey with them, just as he did with his most convincing 2010 campaign commercials: The ones where he pledged “No new taxes without a vote of the people.”
So far, he’s lived up to that pledge, in part because the adamantly anti-tax Republican minority in the Legislature has just enough votes to thwart almost all new revenue proposals that require a two-thirds majority.
There’s also the fact that several other fall votes from around the country suggest ultra-conservatives may have gone too far both in their anti-tax and their anti-illegal immigrant rhetoric.
It all sets up a situation where Brown’s measure and any companions appear now to stand a better chance of passage than seemed likely a few months ago. An enormously difficult task still faces Brown and his allies, but at least for the moment it looks doable.