Keith Gurnee • Another View of the transportation sales tax hike

Another View of the transportation sales tax hike
August 12, 2016

keith gerny


Benjamin Franklin’s famous quote “The only things certain are death and taxes” seems incomplete. These days, it should be modified by adding “and tax increases.”

Having read Gordon Mullin’s excellent piece taking on the Tribune on the transportation tax in the CCN, there is another wrinkle to the story. After reading Phil Dirkx’s recent editorial in the Tribune about the ½ percent sales tax hike just placed on the Nov. 8 ballot, I was stunned by the naïveté of such a seasoned reporter.

In excoriating Supervisors Debbie Arnold and Lynn Compton for voting against placing the measure on the ballot, Dirkx argued that all county supervisors should have agreed with putting it to a vote by assuring us that the voters “will make the right decision.” Does he mean that voters never make the wrong decision? If so, he couldn’t be more wrong.

Another State Revenue Grab…

Let’s ask ourselves why this local “self-help” transportation tax is being pursued. Do we need more investment in our roads and to balance our transportation needs? Absolutely. But what is causing this measure to be brought forth is yet another state of California revenue grab from local government.

Recently, the state informed all cities and counties in California that it would no longer be providing them with transportation funding that has historically been provided for local transportation projects. Instead, the state will provide partial transportation funding to those local governments that impose a new “self-help” transportation tax of their own. Using the excuse that state transportation revenues are down due to lower gas prices and more fuel-efficient vehicles, the state has once again victimized local government.

This is only the latest in a series of state revenue grabs from local government. In 2011, state government took away redevelopment funding, extorting the millions of dollars that local governments were using to improve their communities and provide affordable housing. There are many similar examples of the state taking away local revenue that could be cited, and now we have this.

How is it that a majority of our state legislature is comprised of people who once served in local government, but that as soon as they get elected and arrive in Sacramento they completely forget where they came from?

Instead, too many of those elected officials enact laws and programs that harm the local governments they once served. Rather than meekly succumbing to this state’s revenue grab, local government should at least be standing up to the state legislature before pursuing a new tax. Why not ask our state representatives to come to this County and hold open meetings to have them explain the state’s actions and to advocate for returning that funding for local government? A futile gesture? Perhaps, but letting our state government off the hook with little more than a whimper does not serve us well.

Are the Voters Always right?

So back to Dirkx’s arguments that the voters will “make a good decision on the sales tax increase.” Did the voters make a “good decision” in approving the statewide bond issue for the “Browndoggle,” Governor Jerry Brown’s woefully underfunded $9 billion bond issue to fund his pet project: the California High-Speed Rail. Absolutely not. Already well over budget, the notion of building a bullet train traversing the most fertile agricultural Valley in the nation and encouraging transit oriented development on top of those rich soils is insane. Because it will cost 10 times more than the original bond issue to complete, the voters will have to be asked to approve another $80 billion in bonds to finish it.

What the state is doing with the first $9 billion is getting voters hooked on that public investment and the need to continue supporting bond measures so as not to squander the original investment. I know many voters who now regret supporting that measure. Perhaps those voters might want to repeal that measure by placing it once again on the state ballot and repurpose it to fund—what else?– local transportation projects or maybe projects to help solve the state’s water crisis.

Then consider the recent North County vote on a groundwater control district that failed by nearly a 4-1 margin. After extolling the right to allow voters to consider that issue, supervisors Bruce Gibson and Adam Hill couldn’t have been happy the end result the voters gave them. In fact, no sooner than after those votes were counted, both of those supervisors made a motion to repudiate that vote by inviting the state to take over control of groundwater resources in this county. While that motion was defeated by a 3-2 vote by the SLO Board of Supervisors– thanks to Supervisor Frank Mecham for breaking the tie– it was a remarkable display of Gibson’s and Hill’s willingness to blithely ignore the overwhelming voice of those voters. Clearly, those two supervisors didn’t feel the voters were right.

Then look at the flurry of 17 measures being placed by the state on the Nov. 8, ballot. That ballot will be clogged with self-serving measures sponsored by powerful special interest groups who will spend millions of dollars in misleading advertisements in an effort to convince the voters to support their own self-interest. Will the voters be right on all of those measures? Highly doubtful, but we will have to live with the consequences. After all, there is a risk to putting measures on the ballot and that risk is that bad measures become mandatory public policy.

So ask yourselves, have the voters always been right? When have they been wrong? If you think about it, you’ll find many examples of the voters being wrong.

To Tax or Not to Tax?

That is the question voters must decide in November. Now I don’t begrudge Supervisor Frank Mecham for placing the transportation sales tax on the ballot. As one of the more pragmatic of our public officials, he knows we need transportation infrastructure in this county. With his eight years on the board and his years as mayor of the City of Paso Robles, he has observed firsthand how the state of California has grown ever more distant from local government. He probably saw the writing on the wall and what might be the inevitable futility of fighting the state’s intransigence.

Nor should we begrudge Supervisors Arnold and Compton for refusing to put the tax increase on the ballot. They are champions of lower taxes, and in listening to the presentations about the sales tax measure, it appears very little if any of the funds of that measure would be spent on projects in their districts.

T. Keith Gurnee is a retired urban designer and a former member of the San Luis Obispo City Council.
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