Close to Home: The road forward after Measure A
In the end it wasn’t even close. Sonoma County voters resoundingly rejected a quarter-cent sales tax increase to fund road repair, public safety and other items. The 37 percent-63 percent pounding of the measure surprised even local political consultants and activists.
Measure A faced the primary hurdle of anti-tax voter sentiment, as evidenced by recent defeats of a proposed tax increase in the Marin-Sonoma Mosquito and Vector Control District, an eighth-cent sales tax increase for libraries in 2014, a one-cent sales tax for roads in Petaluma in 2014 and a parcel tax for city parks in Petaluma in 2012.
But it was perhaps the blunder made by the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors in placing language on the ballot that allowed funding for “public safety” and “other essential services” in addition to “local roads and pothole repair.” Voters were leery of funding another tax increase that was not specifically targeted for roads, even though the authors promised that the funding would be allocated there.
Missteps by Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit - the beneficiary of the last countywide sales tax increase approved by voters - also may have fueled sentiment against Measure A. SMART was passed by voters with a majority of more than 67 percent in 2008. However, opening of the rail line was delayed from 2014 to 2016, the promised Cloverdale-Larkspur line didn’t come to fruition due to a $350 million gap in anticipated revenues, and cost overruns and unanticipated expenses have plagued the line.
Based on polling conducted in early 2015, the supervisors placed a general sales tax on the ballot instead of a targeted sales tax measure because a general tax measure needs only 50 percent plus one while a targeted sales tax measure requires a two-thirds majority. Such is the sad case of tax policy in the state of California that the most regressive form of taxation - the sales tax - has become the primary vehicle for local government to increase funding for local needs.
It’s highly unlikely another attempt at passing a sales tax will occur anytime soon. The long-term way forward is comprehensive tax reform at the state level, something that has been debated ad nauseam for years upon years.
At the local level, if road repair continues to be seen as crucial, the county should consider a road repair bond to address the issue, similar to the $500 million bond measure passed by voters in San Francisco in 2014.
Bonds have a significantly higher rate of passage and provide a much larger funding source, which would help meet the estimated $1.6 billion in road repairs needed in Sonoma County. It should be noted that the sales tax would have generated roughly $100 million in five years while the recent Santa Rosa Junior College bond was for $410 million.
Hopefully, Sonoma County supervisors will consider placing a road repair bond on the ballot during a high turnout election, such as the November 2016 presidential election. Sonoma County voters deserve that option to repair our dilapidated infrastructure.
Paul Andersen is a writer, researcher and political consultant who lives in Petaluma. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.