Thursday, October 23, 2008
The public might not rally behind another sales tax hike, warned Debbie Hale, executive director of the Transportation Agency of Monterey County.
It was June, and TAMC’s board was discussing whether to ask county supervisors to approve a November ballot measure raising the county’s sales tax by one-half of one percent for 25 years. If it wins, the measure will generate an estimated $980 million for transportation projects.
Without private funding, the measure could be doomed to failure, Hale told the board, because state law prohibits TAMC– and every other government entity– from using public funds to try to influence an election.
But the public has, by and large, rallied behind TAMC. After the supes placed Measure Z on the ballot, it won speedy endorsements from the county’s 12 city councils, the Aquarium, the Hospitality Association and even the historically anti-tax Monterey Peninsula Taxpayers Association.
Between Jan. 1 and Sept. 30, the Yes on Z campaign raised more than $73,000, most of it from tourist-dependent local businesses. The No on Z campaign lagged far behind, with less than $1,000 in cash and in-kind contributions from campaign treasurer Mike Weaver.
Despite the lopsided funding, history is stacked against Measure Z. TAMC’s three previous attempts at a half-cent sales tax hike– Measure B in 1989, Measure N in 1998 and Measure A in 2006– all failed to garner the two-thirds voter approval necessary to pass.
Given that track record, Hale seems to understand that Measure Z will need unprecedented outreach if it’s going to have a chance at passing. And to that end, TAMC is negotiating a very fine legal line.
According to records requested from TAMC and compiled by the Weekly, the agency has been laying a supportive groundwork for Measure Z for more than a year.
A brochure sent to residents in spring 2007 paints a foreboding portrait of TAMC’s funding needs. “Monterey County is beautiful, but getting around is becoming ugly,” it reads. “We’ve established our plan to improve county transportation, but we’ll need your help to move it forward.”
In July, Hale told the Silicon Valley/San Jose Business Journal that TAMC was planning to lobby harder than it did leading up to 2006’s failed Measure A. “This time around we are going to do a lot more public outreach,” she was quoted as saying.
On Dec. 5, 2007, the TAMC board approved a transportation investment plan “to be funded by a 25-year, half-cent sales tax slated for the November 2008 ballot.”
TAMC’s 2007 annual report, sent to residents in February at a cost of $79,000, maps “problem areas” throughout the county and emphasizes the importance of the investment plan.
A flyer with the headline “Funding Shortfall: An accident waiting to happen” states that a half-cent sales tax increase would fund “critically needed transportation projects.”
Another flyer projects future traffic conditions with the investment plan– the column is colored green and summarized, “Quality of life improves”– and without the plan, colored red and summarized, “Quality of life suffers.”
A TAMC video highlighting under-funded projects, prepared at a cost of $85,000, is posted to the agency’s website and aired on public access television.
TAMC press releases in April and May focused on the measure’s supporters, noting that “a strong educational plan will be needed in order to reach the required two-thirds voter support at the polls.” No mention is made of public opposition to the measure.
Over the summer, TAMC employees prepared a report and resolution asking the board to support Measure Z.
From June 25 to Oct. 8, Hale made three presentations and gave five media interviews regarding Measure Z. She characterizes the effort as education, not advocacy.
In the lead-up to the election, Hale submitted the arguments in favor of Measure Z for the voter information pamphlet, but her name does not appear as a signatory.
Hale says TAMC never crossed the line. “It’s our public duty to provide information on what’s in the plan and about the projects,” she says. “But once the measure is on the ballot, we can’t go out and say, ‘Vote yes’ or ‘Vote no.’”
Carmel attorney Steven Andre says a “reasonableness test” based on style, timing and tenor determines whether an agency has inappropriately used public funds in an attempt to sway an election.
“You have these government agencies that– under the guise of educating or informing, which is lawful– are using that supposed function to gain consensus of the electorate, which is improper,” he says.
But Yes on Z campaign consultant Plasha Will says TAMC has followed the rules. “They don’t play a role in the campaign,” she says. “They wrote the transportation investment plan, and then the campaign takes it from there.”