Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | June 13, 2006

Distrust leads to county sales tax defeat

Until Monday afternoon, I was sure that Measure A, the county’s bid to increase our sales tax rate by one-half cent, was headed for approval. I read details of polling that gave Measure A a slim lead. And given that the majority of Santa Clara County voters live north of Bernal Road and are more likely to support a BART extension than those of us in South County, I thought that the hint of a back-room deal to fund BART that I found so objectionable wasn’t likely to bother them.

Then, on Monday afternoon, I spoke with some coworkers about Measure A. These folks all live north of Bernal Road. Of those who were willing to voice an opinion (some live in San Mateo County and didn’t vote on Measure A), all said that they were voting against it.

I was pleasantly stunned.

One coworker was concerned about the lack of details about the projects the increase would fund and the fact that the money could be spent on anything, since the money was earmarked for the county’s general fund.

I went to bed Tuesday night after checking election returns on the county registrar’s web site and fell asleep knowing that the overreaching, distrust-inducing measure was likely headed to defeat.

I awoke the next day to read the Mercury News declaring – not so pleasantly, I thought – that it was also stunned by the measure’s defeat.

I was surprised by the tone County Supervisor Don Gage took immediately after the measure’s defeat.

“The voters vote, and what they say – fine. Then they’re going to have to deal with what the county is going to have to do to balance the budget. There’s going to be a lot of stuff that’s going to have to disappear,” Gage told reporter Kristen Munson.

Voters distrusted Measure A for lots of reasons: Because the county only needed a quarter-cent increase to balance its books; because the VTA’s doomed quarter-cent sales tax proposal disappeared at nearly the same time the county’s proposal doubled to a half-cent; and because general fund dollars can be spent on anything. Comments like this don’t do anything to increase trust among voters.

Instead, these comments (and others Gage made to the Mercury News predicting layoffs, airport closures, slashes to drug and alcohol abuse programs) reinforce the perception that the county will base its cuts on where they have the most impact on voters instead of where they will have the least impact.

Given that fat raises were recently given to top county administrators who make six-figure salaries at the same time that county officials were bemoaning budget woes, it’s not hard to understand why voters have that impression.

I hope that Gage and his fellow supervisors take a different tack. I hope that they remember their fiduciary responsibility to citizens and make whatever cuts are necessary in the least-painless places.

I hope they talk to community service agencies and the county’s middle managers – even promising them anonymity to get their honest opinions – who can point out ineffective programs, bloated bureaucracies, painfully protracted processes and unproductive workers. And then I hope they cut those programs, bureaucracies, processes and workers.

Next, I hope that Gage and Supervisor Liz Kniss use their influence on the VTA board to rescind what the BayRail Alliance correctly calls the agency’s “unsustainable commitment to the poorly conceived BART extension.”

These two courses of action will go a long way toward restoring trust, something supes need before they approach voters again for a sales tax boost.

And I hope that at their next opportunity, they ask voters for only the money they need to balance their books – a quarter cent sales tax increase.

Finally, I’d like someone to explain to me why it is that a tax measure that has no specific spending plan attached to it – like Measure A – needs only a simple majority for approval, while a tax measure that has a specific list of projects it will fund – like Morgan Hill’s Measure E, that garned 55 percent of the vote but still failed – needs two-thirds approval for passage.

Doesn’t that seem backwards?

I’m still not fond of the two-thirds majority requirement for any tax measure – after all, this is a democracy and a simple majority ought to be enough unless you’re messing with the constitution – but if you’re going to make it harder for some taxes to pass, doesn’t it make sense that the more vague a tax plan is, the more difficult it should be to pass it?

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