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