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What's up with Measure J?

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If you’re a registered voter in San Luis Obispo County, you may remember the day a 30-page voter information booklet was stuffed into your mailbox.

In case that booklet went straight into your recycling bin, it described Measure J, a ballot initiative devised to address SLO County’s road woes through a countywide sales-tax increase of 0.5 percent.

If Measure J passes with a two-thirds supermajority, a projected $225 million will be raised over the measure’s nine-year life for transportation improvement projects across the county.

SLO Council of Governments (SLOCOG), the agency that oversees regional transportation projects, crafted Measure J because it claims it can no longer depend on diminishing state and federal revenue streams to fund transportation projects in SLO County—from highways, to roads, to bike paths, to public transportation.

In 2008, SLOCOG was receiving $6 million per year from the state for highway projects. Right now, that dollar number is zero, according to SLOCOG.

“We’re raising the issue that the funding is being turned off,” said Ron De Carli, SLOCOG’s executive director. 

Counties that pass transportation sales taxes are called “self-help” counties, based on the notion that a local revenue stream for transportation makes a county less dependent on state funding, and also more competitive when applying for grants.

Claiming independence from state funding is becoming the new normal in California. During this election cycle alone, self-help measures like Measure J are on ballots in 14 counties in the state. Twenty counties representing more than 80 percent of Californians already pay into self-help programs.

Of the $225 million in projected funds from Measure J, roughly $107 million would be given to SLO County and SLOCOG to fund regional projects, like Highway 101 decongestion near Shell Beach, Highway 227 traffic relief, and interchange improvements on Highway 101 in North County.

Thirty-two percent, or $72.6 million, of the funds would be allocated to each of SLO County’s cities for more localized projects. Ten percent, or $22.5 million, would go toward public transportation, with another 10 percent going to bike and pedestrian projects.

Measure J includes safeguards to protect the money, such as an independent taxpayer oversight committee, an annual audit, and a 1 percent administrative expense cap.

But not everyone believes a sales-tax increase is the best route. Opponents of Measure J contend that a tax is merely rewarding the state for acting irresponsibly with taxpayer money.

Traditionally, most funding for transportation infrastructure came from the gasoline tax. But the 18-cent fixed gas tax hasn’t changed in California since 1993. Meanwhile, fuel-efficient and electric vehicles are more popular than ever.

That diminished purchasing power of the gas tax is what many blame for the current funding shortage—but the state Legislature is divided over solutions.

Democrats want to raise the gas tax to alleviate the crunch and generate more transportation monies. Republicans oppose gas-tax increases, pointing out that electric cars aren’t taxed, despite the fact that they also impact roads.

Republicans—and some local opponents of Measure J—also say that Caltrans is inefficient, bloated, and misallocates tax money.

Whichever way you view it, the state has not delivered solutions.

Opponents argue that SLO County shouldn’t cave in to the pressure to self-tax. Supporters say it’s foolish to wait any longer for the state to work things out.

Fifth District SLO County Supervisor Debbie Arnold has another idea: Make roads a larger slice of the county budget.

Of SLO County’s $574-million budget this year, $28 million was allocated for roads.

“This is a spending priority problem, and it’s not a money problem. There’s plenty of money,” Arnold said at a July 16 Board of Supervisors meeting.

SLO’s neighbor to the south, Santa Barbara County, has been a self-help county since 1989.

In 2008, Santa Barbara County voters decided by a 78 percent majority to renew a half-percent transportation sales tax until 2040.

Santa Barbara County’s self-help program includes a citizens oversight committee to keep watch over the programming.

“Santa Barbara has benefited from Measure A tremendously,” said Hamid Bahadori, chairman of that oversight committee. “It’s delivered a lot of projects. The money is protected; the state and feds can’t take it away. It’s under our control, and we watch it.”

Bahadori said he understands the arguments against imposing the tax, in the sense that the state should be pressured to release more funds.

“That fight is still worth fighting,” he said.

But ultimately, Bahadori said the counties that don’t create their own source of transportation revenue are doing themselves a disservice.

“The system is what it is,” Bahadori said. “If you want to attract your fair share of state and federal money, you have to compete with those other counties, or they’re going to take your fair share.”

Staff Writer Peter Johnson can be reached at pjohnson@newtimesslo.com.

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