Community Board: Road tax support could backfire on city, county

Pot hole along Cienega road.

Local support surrounding the Measure P roads tax idea has been stronger than that of any other recent ballot measure, and for good reason, but an all-in mentality from the public might come back to haunt other public entities with their hands out in November for more tax increases.
On June 7, local voters will decide on the measure proposing a countywide 0.5 percent sales tax for 30 years to fund an estimated $240 million in road projects ranging from Highway 25 congestion relief to filling more potholes on local streets. Measure P would need 66.67 percent of the electorate’s vote because it’s a special tax as opposed to a general tax that needs a mere majority of support for approval.
There has been near unanimous support for the roads tax in public circles such as local government entities, the chamber of commerce, the business council, Hollister Downtown Association, and many other groups and individuals. The reason is simple: It’s an easy sell to the public, which can relate directly with the need for road repairs based on everyday experiences driving around on the ravaged local streets.
Still, the Council of San Benito County Governments will need every vote it can get because obtaining a two-thirds majority is a lofty hurdle regardless of the mainstream’s sentiment. Remember, there’s always a portion of the electorate that will look for holes in the measure, such as no guarantee for a new Highway 25 with the money, because there’s a tax hike on the table.
COG’s leaders were smart to place the measure on the June ballot because with a lower turnout, it means the initiative’s supporters can maintain tighter control on the message and audience. Uncertainties about the tone of the political season going forward, anxieties about the broader economy in the short term, and a crowded ballot combine to create a fuzzy picture in November that COG was right to avoid.
City of Hollister and San Benito County officials, on the other hand, either took the bullet for the broader good by focusing first on the roads tax or else felt compelled to roll the dice and wait until November. Either way, it will be a muddy, uphill challenge for both the city and county if voters approve the roads tax as expected.
That’s probably why the two local entities inexplicably spent more than $100,000 on vaguely described “public outreach” from a consultant, The Lew Edwards Group. That firm and others throughout California for many years have taken advantage of a loophole in the state law, which bars use of public dollars for election advocacy but apparently allows poorly veiled campaign efforts as long as there is no mention of the actual election or the sales tax increases in question. Disingenuously, county and city leaders, along with local school districts as well, have employed such consultants to manipulate the voting public with their own tax dollars. The practice, legal or not, should stop immediately.
The Lew Edwards Group hiring is a sign that the city and county’s leaders at least understand it’s no walk in the park ahead as they will ask voters to dig deeper into their checking accounts to support local services.
Five more months gives voters more time to dissect their options (the electorate will be engaged due to the presidential election), for more pinched Hollister voters to decide if they would support a 9 percent sales tax moving forward for the long term, and for a relatively conservative county base to decide if there’s majority support for the same.

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