Ten California cities had sales tax measures on the ballot on November 5th and nine of them passed by significant margins. Only Modesto’s tax measure was voted down and I’m here to tell you how a bit about how it happened.
The campaign for Measure X, a one percent sales tax increase tied to a non binding city council resolution calling for the bulk of the new revenue to be spent on police and fire, was spearheaded by Mayor Garrad Marsh and funded almost entirely by the public safety unions. Being a general tax increase with a caveat, similar to a measure in neighboring Stockton, Measure X required a simple majority to pass.
With Modesto’s finances in a $6 to $11 million dollar hole depending on who you asked and, like most municipalities, facing crippling pension costs, the mayor and city council tossed the measure together late last summer and got it on the ballot. Police and fire unions began pouring money into a campaign to pass the measure and, by early September, no organized opposition had formed.
Knowing a bit about Modesto’s finances as I do, something had to be done. With little time to organize a campaign I turned to the Stanislaus Taxpayers Association and their President, Dave Thomas. Dave and I quickly formed a plan to fight the measure with whatever means we could muster. We were against quite a juggernaut, facing both the City of the Modesto and the public safety unions who had already raised over $100,000 and pledged at least $50,000 more.
Early on we were confronted with all the things a tax-hungry city will do to influence a municipal election that promised a waterfall of newfound cash. In the spring the city had commissioned a $35,000 survey to gage support for the measure, a push poll that unsurprisingly showed overwhelming support. The survey was later handed gratis to the Yes on X campaign who proceeded to hire the same consultant who took the poll. When the Taxpayer’s Association asked for a copy of the publically funded poll they were told to take a hike. The city later relented under pressure but have yet to charge the Yes side for the poll. Later, the City of Modesto stuffed pro Measure X propaganda into the city water and garbage bills.
The city also quietly planted a supporting ballot statement in the voter’s guide and, as the deadline for an opposing statement had passed when Dave and I got involved, the statement was set to be printed alone. When we contacted the city clerk and asked to at least write a rebuttal we were told that no rebuttal would be allowed without an opposing statement, a bureaucratic catch 22 if there ever was one. Astonishingly, we weren’t even allowed a copy of the supporting statement, being told we would have to file a freedom-of-information request.
Things looked bleak at this point and the unions had barely cranked up the campaign yet. The Stanislaus Taxpayers Association is a 501(c)4 corporation and, as such, could not advocate directly against the tax measure. We had limited funds and had to make them count. I contacted an old family friend, Bill Saracino, who put me in touch with Jim Bieber in Santa Ana, who has had success fighting similar measures in other cities. Jim, Dave and I began putting together a mail piece that would knock Modesto voters off-center and shake some no votes out of the trees.
The resulting piece was masterful and fact-filled. Entitled “Modesto Says It has a Revenue Problem”, the front featured the requisite photo of city hall being rained down upon by $100 bills. Inside we named names, listing the top 30 or so highly paid city employees along with their salaries. Twenty were fire fighters and two were cops with the highest paid, a fire engineer, earning over $171,000 (this in a county with a median income of about $50,000 and perennially high unemployment). Across the fold was a collection of Modesto Bee headlines trumpeting a litany of recent financial missteps by the city. On the back, a Star Wars-esque scroll presented year-by-year increases in average police department salaries from 2000 through 2009, showing a 120% boost.
Meanwhile the union funded campaign was hitting on every cylinder of a cash-rich, consultant-heavy campaign; cranking out at least six mail pieces, two full page newspaper ads, nightly phone banks and constant precinct walks. Uniformed firefighters were seen waving yard signs at passing traffic on firehouse lawns. Late in the campaign, the police union kicked in another $60,000 followed by $10,000 from the mayor and his wife.
The pro-tax forces were dealt a bit of a blow when the McClatchy owned Modesto Bee came out in opposition to the tax measure. This was a rare if not unheard of move by The Bee whose reasoning was that the tax was too large ($26 million per year to fill an $11 million dollar hole) and the public was too little involved in the preparation of the secretive measure (something that always gets The Bee’s goat). They took a further hit when it was revealed that the public face of the campaign, the former Modesto police chief who had been rolled out as a “good old guy who just wants what’s right for the city”, was being generously to paid for his time.
As November approached, I began to see signs of some deep, underlying opposition to the tax measure among the citizenry. The Taxpayers Association message seemed to strike a chord with a cross-section of voters, from tea-party types to non-safety city employees who resented to goodies being promised to their fellow employees.
For days and weeks prior to the vote, Modesto Bee readers sounded off on the opinion page, railing against the tax measure. I’ve been involved in enough local campaigns to know when letters are organic and these were from the heart. The few pro-X letters that made their way into the paper ranged from banal and trite to prickly and defensive.
By Election Day, Mayor Marsh and the public safety unions had raised and spent nearly $220,000 to pass Measure X. When polls closed, the early absentees reflected their strong early push with 52% of ballots in favor. When the poll vote came in though at 41% to 59% it was clear they were in trouble. In the end, the Measure failed 49% to 51%, a stunning result considering the David and Goliath proportions of the campaigns.
So, in an election that saw a tidal wave of taxes and bond measures passing across the state, the scrappy Stanislaus Taxpayers Association stands alone. True grit I guess.
(Janice Keating served on the Modesto City Council from 2001 to 2009 and is active in state and local political issues. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Originally published on California Political Review.)