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Sonoma County business coalition fails in costly bid to sink local tax measures

Preliminary results for Sonoma County tax measures

Measure DD: A 20-year countywide quarter-cent sales tax extension for roads, transit and bikeways.

Preliminary results: Winning 72% to 28%

Measure O: A new countywide quarter-cent sales tax for mental health and homelessness services.

Preliminary results: Winning 69% to 31%

*Measure DD and Measure O require a two-thirds supermajority to pass. Remaining city issues require simple majorities.

Measure Q: A Santa Rosa sales tax extension for city services, including emergency preparedness

Preliminary results: Winning 73% to 27%

Measure U: A new Petaluma 1-cent sales tax for public safety and other city needs.

Preliminary results: Winning 62% to 38%

Measure T: A Healdsburg half-cent sales tax extension for public safety, economic development and infrastructure.

Preliminary results: Winning 62% to 38%

Measure V: The city of Sonoma’s half-cent sales tax renewal for emergency preparedness, infrastructure and more.

Preliminary results: Winning 71% to 29%

Measure S: Cotati’s 1-cent sales tax extension for emergency services, infrastructure and more.

Preliminary results: Winning 75% to 25%

Measure R: Cloverdale’s permanent 3% utility fee extension to patch infrastructure and bolster emergency response efforts, among other programs.

Preliminary results: Winning 54% to 46%

A powerful coalition of Sonoma County business groups that spent tens of thousands of dollars to fight local tax measures up and down the ballot appears to have lost every race, the group conceded Wednesday, a stinging blow for industry leaders who were piecing together what went wrong.

The 2020 Tax Moratorium Coalition, a group comprised of the Santa Rosa Metro Chamber, the Sonoma County Farm Bureau, the North Bay Leadership Council and the North Coast Builders Exchange, spent nearly $80,000 to oppose eight county- and city-level tax measures, including a countywide sales tax extension for roads and transit projects and a new countywide tax to bolster mental health and homeless services.

But with preliminary results showing a solid majority of voters backed all measures, rejecting the group’s message countywide, county leaders and political experts say the coalition is due for a reckoning.

“I was dumbfounded when they took this position,” Sonoma County Board of Supervisors Chair Susan Gorin said Tuesday night. “And I think this is a repudiation of any coalition of groups to take an inflexible position on every tax measure across the board.”

Although at least 40,000 votes had yet to be counted Wednesday, with possibly an equal number still coming in through the mail, political experts who reviewed early turnout said the eight tax measures — including city proposals stretching from Petaluma to Cloverdale — looked destined to pass.

North Bay Leadership Council CEO Cynthia Murray on Wednesday issued a 300-word statement from the coalition that effectively conceded defeat.

“While many of our members thought it was a bad time to ask people under so much economic duress to vote for more taxes, and that the cost of living was already too high, the voters were able to support more taxes,” the coalition’s statement read, in part. “This vote of confidence in the economic future of the county is gratifying.”

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But the mounting political losses, including passage of a law enforcement oversight measure the Farm Bureau alone spent $20,000 to oppose, marks a highly public setback for business, development and agricultural interests that have long enjoyed nearly unrivaled political sway in Sonoma County.

Several leaders in the coalition said they had simply come up short in a principled stand against more taxes in a moment of deep economic uncertainty.

“I stand by our moratorium’s belief that even if passed by voters, the idea of adding on what would be close to $1 billion in taxes, as a concept – I think we were right to oppose that,” said North Coast Builders Exchange CEO Keith Woods. “I respect the democratic process, but the voters, what appealed to them?”

In fact, only two of the measures would add new taxes, as six seek to extend existing levies to bolster government services ranging from road repair to public safety.

Some local officials who split sharply with the anti-tax group said the voting results represented the fall of an inflexible coalition that had lost touch with the electorate.

“I think it means that they probably didn’t have as much influence as they thought they had,” said Shirlee Zane, the senior incumbent on the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, who counts some of the same groups as political allies and donors. “Given the fact that they failed in their attempts, they should chill and sit back, and be humbled by that.”

Neither Murray, nor Santa Rosa Metro Chamber CEO Peter Rumble returned messages left Tuesday or Wednesday seeking comment.

Even among business interests, the coalition’s stand caused rifts, with some allies endorsing a number of the tax measures. That included Measure DD, the countywide quarter-cent sales tax extension for roads, transit and bikeway projects, which drew support from the largest union in local road construction, the Operating Engineers Local 3, and the Sonoma County Alliance, which until a controversy this spring was long the region’s most prominent networking and advocacy arm for business interests.

Measure DD, which would extend the tax that has helped widen Highway 101 over the past two decades, promises to generate $26 million annually for the next 20 years to upgrade county roads, bikeways and three local bus systems. It was leading 72% to 28%, according to the latest results available Wednesday, a strong margin above the two-thirds supermajority it needs to pass.

Measure O, a new countywide quarter-cent sales tax meant to bolster funding for mental health and homeless services by $25 million annually, led 69% to 31%. The remaining six city-level, general sales tax increases require a simple majority, and all were well above that threshold Wednesday.

Preliminary results for Sonoma County tax measures

Measure DD: A 20-year countywide quarter-cent sales tax extension for roads, transit and bikeways.

Preliminary results: Winning 72% to 28%

Measure O: A new countywide quarter-cent sales tax for mental health and homelessness services.

Preliminary results: Winning 69% to 31%

*Measure DD and Measure O require a two-thirds supermajority to pass. Remaining city issues require simple majorities.

Measure Q: A Santa Rosa sales tax extension for city services, including emergency preparedness

Preliminary results: Winning 73% to 27%

Measure U: A new Petaluma 1-cent sales tax for public safety and other city needs.

Preliminary results: Winning 62% to 38%

Measure T: A Healdsburg half-cent sales tax extension for public safety, economic development and infrastructure.

Preliminary results: Winning 62% to 38%

Measure V: The city of Sonoma’s half-cent sales tax renewal for emergency preparedness, infrastructure and more.

Preliminary results: Winning 71% to 29%

Measure S: Cotati’s 1-cent sales tax extension for emergency services, infrastructure and more.

Preliminary results: Winning 75% to 25%

Measure R: Cloverdale’s permanent 3% utility fee extension to patch infrastructure and bolster emergency response efforts, among other programs.

Preliminary results: Winning 54% to 46%

The anti-tax coalition was formed with the intent to fight tax measures this year and beyond as part of an overarching effort to safeguard the region’s economic recovery amid the pandemic-induced recession, according to its campaign.

Among its founding members was the newly emboldened Sonoma County Farm Bureau, which ratcheted up its election spending this cycle into the six figures for the first time in nearly 15 years.

“I think it’s important for Farm Bureau to have a voice, and to share the interests of our members in any kind of advocacy or political scenario,” said Tawny Tesconi, the Farm Bureau’s executive director. “Of course, we would love to win them all.”

Tesconi said she expects that advocacy to continue despite the lopsided result in 2020.

“The Farm Bureau Board, I don’t think is going to suddenly decide they aren’t going to be politically active because of an outcome that wasn’t their first choice.”

However, political analysts and elected officials suggested the loss might resonate more deeply for the business community, perhaps serving notice of the limits of their political power in a new era.

Sonoma State University political scientist David McCuan said the $80,000 the group spent is a drop in the bucket compared to the cash it could bring to bear in the future. But coalition may also see reason to reassess the role it plays going forward, he said.

Even with the pandemic and resulting economic downturn, timing was also not in their favor this year, McCuan said. Sonoma County’ electorate is dominated by Democrats, and turnout in their ranks for this election, and among voters at large, is set to match or eclipse records.

Political consultant Rob Muelrath, who worked on the campaign in favor of Measure DD, the road tax extension, said the opposition group’s generic, no-tax messaging just didn’t resonate among voters.

“The campaign they ran just proves that you have to fight each campaign on its own merits,” Muelrath said, adding that the coalition’s approach “didn’t make sense, and people didn’t buy it.”

Supervisor David Rabbitt, who has served as the Board of Supervisors’ business liaison throughout the coronavirus pandemic, said restoring and maintaining lines of communication will be key to shoring up relationships with the involved groups.

The business community and related stakeholders are crucial for Sonoma County going forward, he said.

“I think we need to make sure that, no matter what, we’re talking to one another, not past one another,” Rabbitt said.

The election losses mark the latest blow to local business groups in the political arena. The Sonoma County Alliance opted to largely sit out this election in the wake of its own public reckoning earlier this year, when its then-president created an uproar over his remarks about Black Lives Matter protests.

The Farm Bureau filled the vacuum, spending six figures in an election cycle for the first time since 2006, when farmers worked to defeat a ban on genetically modified crops. Most of its 2020 spending — more than $100,000 — went toward defeating state Proposition 15, which sought to eliminate limits on property tax increases for owners of commercial real estate and farmland. That measure was trailing 48% to 52%, according to preliminary results.

But the group also spent $20,000 to defeat Measure P, a local effort to expand funding and authority for the county’s law enforcement oversight agency. Voters’ resounding approval of that measure — it stood at 67% to 33% on Wednesday — surprised political observers, including McCuan, who called the measure a barometer for the country and a measuring stick for the county’s power brokers. That includes leaders in the business community, who he said have long led a “charmed life as influencers in the county.”

“A suburban vote for a police oversight measure? That’s a big statement about how much these groups have to do,” McCuan said.

Brian Sobel, a Petaluma-based political analyst, was confident the business groups would be back in the political fold after taking stock of this year’s losses in the political ring.

“None of these things with any special interest group are deathblows,” he said. “They can all figure it out, or believe why they didn’t do well, and they get back into it.”

Press Democrat Staff Writer Kevin Fixler contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Tyler Silvy at 707-526-8667 or tyler.silvy@pressdemocrat.com.

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