Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Californians and Bay Area voters embrace new spending measures

San Mateo County school ballot measures, for the most part, won convincingly Tuesday despite or even because of the bad economy. The measures' supporters say voters realized schools need more funds, particularly in a time of budget shortfalls. The high voter turnout also helped.

Voters easily passed the Millbrae School District's $30 million bond Measure X, the Belmont-Redwood Shores district's parcel-tax Measure U and the Bayshore district's parcel-tax Measure Y.

The San Carlos district's Measure S remained just short of the two-thirds voter approval for parcel-tax proposals.

"We're very, very ecstatic," said Chuck Velschow, co-chairman of the campaign for Belmont-Redwood Shores' measure. "It really shows how voters support public education and understand the difficulties public education faces. Even if the economic times are tough, they know we still have to provide quality education."

Elsewhere in California, voters approved a light rail system in the North Bay, a half-cent sales tax increase in Los Angeles County for roads and public transit. An eighth-of-a cent sales tax increase for BART in Santa Clara County was still too close to call.

Historically, Californians reject bonds and taxes during economic downturns. In the early 1990s, for example, just one out of four such measures passed.

But not this year.

"People seemed to hunker down and do what they could for their own community," said Field Poll director Mark DiCamillo. "It was one of the remarkable things about this election."

DiCamillo and campaign consultants point to the Election Day influx of new, younger and optimistic voters inspired by Barack Obama's candidacy.

"Obama increased turnout everywhere and the people that came into the polls — younger, new and Democrats — were more likely to be pro-tax folks," said John Whitehurst, who ran the successful Measure WW, the East Bay Regional Park District bond. "And Obama also inspired a sense of investment in the community. People were not angry."

Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association President Jon Coupal concurred, although not with enthusiasm.

"You had a significant percentage of the voting population being relatively new voters without a lot of knowledge about local fiscal issues," he said. "They were also younger voters who don't pay a lot of taxes or own property. It was an Obama tsunami, which we predicted."

Measure advocates say they could see Obama's theme of hope spilling over into their campaigns.

"There was this feeling of optimism," said Ted Radke of Martinez, a retired political science professor on the East Bay Regional Park board. "I think people were in a mood to say, 'Let's do some things. Let's help our schools, parks and libraries. It's good to invest in the community.'"

Parks may have a special appeal during hard economic times, said Southern California pollster George Manross.

When people can ill afford exotic vacations, they turn their focus to close-in places to relax, exercise, and picnic with their families.

"When times get tough, people take stock and become very selective in distinguishing between what they want and they need," Manross said. "People focus on home and what's going to affect them the most."

Voters may also realize that without local dollars, the services they enjoy may shrink or disappear as federal and state funding dries up.

AC Transit's $48 a year parcel tax increase for operating costs passed handily because voters knew the district was suffering from soaring fuel costs and state raids on its sales tax money, said AC Transit President Chris Peeples.

Without the increase, he said, AC Transit would have been forced to raise fares or cut service.

"This is like the queen in Alice in Wonderland," Peeples said. "You're running as fast as you can just to stay in place. Gas prices of $4 and $5 a gallon convinced people we really need to do more to help public transit."

The campaigns also tapped into voters' worries about the nation's rising jobless rates. Public works projects bring in new jobs, they said.

"People understand that in order to give life and energy to the economy, government and the taxpayers must prime the economic pump," said Quentin Kopp, chairman of the California High-Speed Rail Authority and a proponent of Prop. 1A, the $9.95 billion down payment on the bullet train between northern and Southern California.

California and the nation has a tradition of taking on big projects in hard times, Kopp added.

Much of the first transcontinental railroad was built during the last two years of the Civil War from 1863 to 1865. The Bay Bridge and Golden Gate Bridge were built in the 1930s during the Great Depression.

Voter approval of bonds and parcel taxes will not immediately generate jobs, however.

It can take years to begin construction on major public works projects that often require numerous sources of funds and planning documents.

The high-speed rail bond, for example, is only a down payment on the $43 billion project. And some previously approved state bond programs have languished for years.

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