It's almost been five years since San Mateo County voters approved Measure A, a 10-year county-wide half-cent sales tax that generates about $80 million annually for the county's general fund. Then seven months ago, voters approved a 20-year extension of that tax.
How about another half-cent sales tax increase in 2018 to generate another $80 million annually, this time to address potholes, traffic congestion, better mass transit and other transportation matters? There is support out there – above 60 percent, Bryan Godbe of Godbe Research told the Board of Supervisors at a recent study session on a tax measure – but it's not enough.
To pass, this tax measure requires the approval of two-thirds of the voters. A recent poll by Godbe Research, a San Mateo-based market researcher, showed that more than two-thirds of voters polled are OK with higher sales taxes if the revenues are used to repair potholes and maintain streets, reduce congestion on U.S. 101 and double the capacity of Caltrain so as to remove vehicles from streets. But support was not as high for spending on bike lanes, senior transit, the county bus system and extending light rail around the southern end of the Bay.
As for opposition, the most well-received arguments were: that higher sales taxes punish older and low-income people, that local government should be spending its revenues more wisely rather than raising taxes, and that a higher sales tax will chase businesses away – a phenomenon shown to be untrue, but that people believe "intuitively," Mr. Godbe said.
In most of San Mateo County, including towns in the Almanac's service area, customers pay $8.75 in sales tax for every $100 spent, according to rates compiled by the state Board of Equalization.
Already at the limit
Included in that 8.75 percent is 1 percent for transportation-related projects: a half cent approved in forming the Transit District (in 1974, but not levied until 1982) and the another half cent since 1988.
Adding another half cent is complicated. By state law, no local jurisdiction can collect more than 2 percent in sales taxes, and jurisdictions in San Mateo County began bumping against that limit after voters in 2012 approved another half cent for the general fund.
The countywide sales taxes now add up to 1.5 percent, but four cities, including East Palo Alto and Belmont, have their own taxes on top. Any new countywide half-cent tax would push their rates above 2 percent, in violation of the law.
To go beyond the cap requires legislation, which is in the works. AB 1613, by Assemblyman Kevin Mullin, would allow San Mateo County to exceed the cap by half a percentage point. Another transportation-related half-cent tax would require the Transit District to develop a spending plan listing specific projects and programs that would benefit, including public transit, local streets and roads, and bicycle and pedestrian facilities.
While Gov. Jerry Brown resists statewide tax increases, he tends to be agreeable when localities want to raise their own taxes, Supervisor Don Horsley said. "We're supportive of it," Mr. Horsley said of Mr. Mullin's bill.
It did not go unnoticed by voters in this poll that this measure would be the third in the county in five years. "What's interesting," Mr. Godbe said, "is we thought that that (concern) might be at the top of the list. It's actually at the bottom of the list (though) still influential."
The term "influential" applies when an opposition argument is supported by more than 33 percent of survey respondents, he said. Polling showed that all of the above opposition arguments easily met that threshold.
Godbe Research said the poll surveyed 937 of 180,353 registered voters likely to participate in the November 2018 general election, and 763 of 116,696 likely voters in the June 2018 primary election. Polling was done in late March via landline phones, cellphones and online interviews. The margins of error were less than 4 percent, according to Godbe Research.
In April, Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law Senate Bill 1, which raises the gasoline tax 12 cents per gallon starting Nov. 1, 2017. The law also sets an annual "transportation improvement fee" tied to the market value of a vehicle starting with the new year, and sets a $100 fee on zero-emission vehicles starting in 2020.
According to the new law, public funding for road maintenance over the next 10 years will face shortfalls of $59 billion for the state highway system and $78 billion for streets and roads maintained by cities and counties. Taxes and fees related to road maintenance have not gone up for more than 20 years, proponents of the new law say, and motorists are spending $17 billion every year on "extra maintenance and car repair" attributed to poorly maintained roads.
Click here for more information on SB 1.
Also in the works: Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, has authored a bill that would allow the three-county Joint Powers Board that oversees Caltrain to ask voters for a one-eighth-cent sales tax to fund railroad operation and capital improvements.
And any sales tax measure in November 2018 would likely share the ballot with Regional Measure 3, a bid by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission to increase tolls on major Bay Area bridges by up to $3. Tolls were last raised in 2004.
Another Board of Supervisors study session on a county sales tax increase is tentatively set for Aug. 8.
"We've seen there is a base of support for a transportation measure," Mr. Godbe said in summing up his presentation to the Board of Supervisors. "(But) after people hear of the information, positive and negative, we're not where we need to be on a sales tax.
"We can't assume that just because it may be the right thing to do, that people are going to support it. Right now, they won't," he said. "We have work to do before this measure gets put on the ballot. We believe that public outreach efforts should begin as soon as possible in order to explain, really, the needs and the potential solutions that this kind of measure would present. ... We shouldn't wait for final details."
"The more transparency the better, to try to get as much buy-in as possible before this is formally put forward to the voters," Supervisor Dave Pine said. "We definitely have our work cut out for us. ... This is not going to be easy. I think transparency is really important."
Seamus Murphy, speaking for the San Mateo County Transit District, said that the public's concern about traffic congestion is "probably at an all time high" in the county. "We're really prepared to make a strong case that we can do a lot of the things that move the needle with the public," he said, including talking "in a very assertive way" to the public about what SamTrans is doing now and what it plans to do.
SamTrans should be at the Aug. 8 study session in force, Supervisor Horsley said. "Bring your whole staff," he told Mr. Murphy.