Transportation Ignores the People … Higher Taxes, Now? … Really??

This article first appeared in California Political Review on 7/2/20.

Hey, are you aware of the half-cent sales tax increase proposed for Sacramento County on the November ballot to raise $8.4 billion over the next forty years for transportation purposes? It would make the countywide tax a whopping 9.25% – higher than 88 percent of all counties nationally!

(And, if you think this is a bad idea, you can go directly to the bottom of this Op-Ed to learn what you can do about it!)

What’s going on?

On May 14th, the Board of Directors at the Sacramento Transportation Authority (STA) passed ordinance NO. STA 20-01 (Measure A) with a one vote margin sending it to the County Board of Supervisors on July 14th – the last step before the November ballot.

At the March STA Board meeting, there were 435 comments of opposition compared to about 60 in favor. In May, there were as many as 700 opposition emails running at a ratio of 10:1 to those in favor. However, despite the large outpouring of public opposition to the ordinance, most STA directors first justification of their vote was by casually dismissing the opposition as “organized”, and then argued that “voters should decide in November.” Three days later, one STA Director who voted against the measure (Citrus Heights Vice Mayor Steve Miller) commented in the Citrus Heights Sentinel, “I got over 700 emails against it … I don’t know how some of the directors on the STA board could ignore that. … I think it’s going to go down in flames, … I don’t think it’s the time.”

Nobody forced these hundreds of people to take time out of their day to express to their concern publicly. I saw the emails. Many, many of them were well-crafted missives written from a wide variety of community members. If you were one of the more than 600 people who took time to write a letter of opposition to this sales tax, sorry, your opinion does not matter — it was “organized.” It makes you wonder if the Board of Directors, who are also duly elected officials whose primary goals are to serve their constituents, really values the “voters” as much as it does carrying out its predetermined agenda.

And, the second justification used by the STA Board that we should let the voters decide in November is an almost universal “cop-out.” (That is avoiding doing something that one ought to do.) It’s saying, “don’t blame me!” Having served as a local-elected myself, it’s just a too easy thing to say. But this is really a question of how we are going to spend $1 million of the taxpayer’s money and it’s a question of good stewardship. (STA polling has clearly shown that the public does not want this tax for the services proposed.)

Apparently the STA board would rather force the public to foot a one million dollar bill, the estimated cost of putting the measure on the ballot, than seriously listen to the public stakeholders.

If that one million dollar figure made you do a double take, it should have! This figure comes directly from the Sacramento County Registrar of Voters. In fact, they put the exact cost of putting the sales tax on the ballot at $1,027,913.08! (The basic setup fee is $4,920.00; the sample ballot will cost $148,382.54, and staff-related costs add up to $874,610.53 – God knows why it costs that much, but it does! (The cost of the public sector vs. the private sector is another topic.)

Those opposed to the sales tax have real concerns regarding both the timing and nature of the proposed tax. For one, we are in the middle of a pandemic, with over 35 million people nationwide facing unemployment and economic hardship. The April California unemployment rate was 15.5% – higher than the great recession of 2008! The STA’s response, “Let’s tax everyone more on the things they buy!” How can it possibly be a good idea to increase sales taxes at a time like this? However, the Directors at the STA argued their third justification that “things” will be different in November, but is there any evidence to arrive at that conclusion?

Yes, indeed in five to six months, things will be different. They could be better or they could be worse. We don’t know. However, every forecast I have heard is that the recovery from this economic melt-down caused by the pandemic will be very slow and will take many months, if not years to resolve all of its ramifications.

Meanwhile, the tax impacts every resident of the county. And, if smart and you want to purchase a large ticket item, I would take the short drive to Roseville in Placer County to purchase it where the tax rate is only 7.75%. Let’s see, on a $30,000 purchase, maybe something like equipment, a vehicle, or whatever, I would save 1.5% (9.25%-7.75%) which would be $450. Hell, yeah, many people would drive 20 minutes to save that. Now, I wonder if that type of economic impact was factored into this tax proposal?

And, speaking of economic impact, there’s the inconvenient reality that sales taxes disproportionately affect those with the least disposable income: the elderly, those in single income families, the economically disadvantaged, and children. What about them? A sale tax is inherently regressive. That is precisely why social justice organizations such as the National Action Network and the NAACP are officially opposed to Measure A. And, others are rallying to oppose this including business groups, and many others.

But, as their fourth justification, STA directors pointed out that the sales tax would be an economic stimulus in this time of global pandemic! To which you might reply, “Huh? I don’t get that.” On the morning of May 14th, I sent STA Director Jeff Harris (Sacramento City Councilmember) a current opinion piece in the Sacramento Bee which noted that statewide, people are rejecting tax increases, to which he kindly replied, “It’s a good article, but did not cover employment. … Please watch the meeting today!” His comment mystified me.

Then, at the meeting, several STA directors touted that the sales tax will provide an economic stimulus for Sacramento County by hiring on average 3,300 workers over the next forty years. The logic is that we tax every resident a combined $8.4 billion (most of which is not being spent on road repairs – which is what residents want), but we will also hire 1,212 construction workers, 1,079 people to support “expanded” transportation services (light rail?), and 1,010 jobs which will be due to indirect suppliers and “induced” consumer spending.

However, to say the tax is justified as an economic stimulus strikes me as a “Trojan Horse.” It’s just saying we’ll take the money from taxpayers to pay a relatively few construction workers and others for a limited period of time! Meanwhile, most of the $8.4 billion is still not being spent on what the taxpayers want – our roads repaired!

Generally an economy is stimulated by tax cuts (not tax hikes), so people have more disposable income. Tax hikes generally dampen the economy. So, to say that the government is going to tax everyone more so that a few people can have jobs is just “robbing Peter to pay Paul.” It’s simply income redistribution.

It is an economic stimulus for whom? The April unemployment rate in Sacramento County is 14.7% (up 4.8% from March and growing). In the region, there are NOW 148,100 unemployed per the May 22, 2020 EDD report. 3,300 jobs IN THE FUTURE would be a tiny fraction of the currently unemployed. Meanwhile, an $8.4 billion dollar tax that would have an immediate harmful impact on working-class families. The promise of tiny, theoretical benefits in the future is not very convincing.

Residents are already paying a half-cent sales tax for transportation until 2039, as well as the recent SB 1 (2017) twelve cent per gallon gas tax for transportation, when is enough, enough?

Even in the Bay Area, their mega one-cent sales tax hike proposal for transportation was taken off the November 2020 because the timing was not right during a pandemic. This should be a wake-up call to the STA as well.

When a government agency ignores public opinion, offers flimsy justifications for their actions, and then just presses through, it seems that the bottom line is that they just want to do what they want to do. And, when all of this flies in the face of logical reason, it leads one to question what is their reason for the rush?

What you can do!

If, like me, you’d rather “stimulate the economy” by deciding where you want to spend your hard earned money, join me, the Sac County Residents Against Measure A (use the “Sign Up” button to register your online protest), and its coalition of taxpayers, social justice groups, business and community groups by making your voice heard.

Please contact your county supervisor before July 14th and let them know that now is not the time to push an additional sales tax onto the upcoming ballot – especially during a pandemic. And, if you are so moved to join this diverse coalition to express your disdain for doubling of our Sacramento County transportation sales tax, you can email your opposition message to Phil Serna, Chair of the County Board of Supervisors and separately to Darren Suen, Chair of the Sacramento Transportation Authority. In your emails, it is important to include the instructions of, “Please read my public comments aloud at the meeting.” The emails for both government organizations are the same:

AND THEN, TO MAKE A MUCH BIGGER IMPACT, please join us at our 8am July 14th rally at the County Board of Supervisors – 700 H Street, Sacramento (between 7th and 8th at the Parking Garage Entrance). Please RSVP and more information, including a flier, can be found at

Thank you for your help! And, be sure to thank Supervisor Sue Frost for her consistent opposition to Measure A! We are stronger together! We will make our voice heard! We do not want our sales tax for transportation doubled!

W. Bruce Lee, President, Sacramento Taxpayers Association and Coalition Chair, Sac County Residents Against Measure A

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