Against All Odds, Conservatives Defeat Modesto Tax Measure

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 [email protected]. Originally published on California Political Review.)


  1. Congratulations to Modesto. Finally a small town has woke up to the crooked politics of the State..
    Here in Orange County we have been drifting slowly into the Communist wet lands of corruption and hopefully we will take heart from your story…
    Soon the State of California is going to have to face the picture of bankruptcy and it is not going to be a happy time. But this is the end of the road with every socialist program. Socialism can never work in the long run because the wagon just cannot go down the road without someone providing the motive force. AND THAT IS THE MESSAGE!! WAKE UP CITIZENS, WE HAVE THIS PROBLEM IN ALL OF OUR GOVERNMENT; FEDERAL, STATE, COUNTY AND CITY. ALL OF OUR GOVERNMENT NEEDS TO BE AXED BY 75% IMMEDIATELY!!

  2. Bill Saracino says

    A great example to activists everywhere of what can be done with a little money and a lot of dedication. Congrats to all involved in Mo- town.

  3. NorCalLibertarian says

    It’s a START…and someone or something has to be the “Tip of the Spear”!
    Congratulations Modesto…apparently the unions and entrenched politicos STILL DON’T GET IT!

  4. Let’s not forget Mayor Marsh’s late-hour defense of the mesaure was “Yes, it’s a general tax. You’re just going to have to trust us to spend it wisely. If you don’t like it, you can just vote us out.” I think that helped a lot to show the mindset that was behind this measure. We’re going to have to TRUST you? Trust YOU? You, who were behind much of the financial missteps that led up to this debacle?? We’re supposed to hand you what is functionally a blank check and trust that you won’t continue to make the same mistakes?

    No, sir. As anyone who has children can tell you, what gets rewarded gets repeated. We were not about to reward your financial mismanagement with more finances so you can continue to show us just how misplaced our trust was.

  5. Hmm I don’t think that’s much to brag about and here is why. We have been invaded with Mexico home invasions, gang activities, murder is rampant in this area. Notice it never makes front page news? Here’s why we are 80% hispanic population now the media is protecting the illegals. The city doesn’t have the police as it is and now you just shot down a tax. I’m all for not raising taxes however with Obama in office and our law officers ignoring our immigration laws we need to raise the tax. You didn’t list our city we held an emergency tax I think in June of this year. You must not step in a classroom the size has doubled in the last couple years 60 plus students per class. Bus service is STOPPED. Come 2:45 you would swear you were in Mexico.

    • Sorry, a blank check where the irresponsible politicians are, by virtue of the very type of tax it IS, not required to spend it on public safety is not the answer. Your argument is a non sequitur:
      1. We need to do something.
      2. This tax is something.
      3. Therefore, we need to vote in this tax.

      It does not follow. What we need to do is the right thing. Voting a blank check to irresponsible politicians is not the RIGHT answer, and I sure hope we’re intelligent enough to not vote for the WRONG answer. We were…this time.

  6. Jeff Addiego says

    Good for the voters of Modesto….I live in Manteca and e few years ago they dud the same thing with measure M saying it to was for public safety…what a scam,I tried my best to educate voters but it passed and to date not one police or fireman have been hired using measure M funds….it was just a union scam ….

  7. Well Done!

  8. The unbridled arrogance and dishonesty of the unions and city officials demonstrates that these supposed public servants are trying to over-enrich themselves at the expense of their employers. We will never have equitable bargaining when city officials want increases in their salaries and they gratuitously dole out public money to union members. Let them strike and bring in replacements for these overpaid, abusive employees. So glad to have left California and would never return.

  9. all I can say I live in Modesto and seen signs all around the neighbor hoods for yes on x and finally i started seeing some with no on x and thats all i knew about prop. x . I am tired of taxes. as a matter of fact one of the things I read in the modesto be in october was they were going to raise a city officials pay from the 150000 range to the 190000 range that was enough for me. There are tons of people out there that would love that job if it paid 60000 a year. People need to come to grips with knowing that the goverment will take as much as you are willing to give with no problem and as a tax payer we need to say no to them and tell them to work within their means.

  10. UpChuck.Liberals says

    This has about the same odor as Campbell. For some completely unknown reason they think they deserve a new city hall and library. They are more than willing to spend money on a new building to keep up with Cupertino, which has FAR MORE income than we do. Progressive love to spend other peoples money.

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