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55% Threshold for Transportation Measures

By: Bill Higgins on Jan 06, 2017
Vote Limit 55?

In 2016, fourteen local transportation "special" sales tax measures went on county ballots that required a two-thirds majority to pass.  Thirteen of them received a super-majority approval rate of 55%.  But only six passed.  But another 7 received 57 percent of the vote.  Only one failed to receive a majority of votes.  Is it time to change the two-thirds voter approved requirement?  

While we see some merit in that approach, it also requires changing Proposition 13, one of the "third rails" of California politics. Perhaps the most practical solution would be to take a Proposition 39 approach, which reduced the threshold for school bond measures to 55 percent.  Specific conditions have to be met: the funds must be used for specific capital projects, there must be an annual audit and citizen oversight, at least two-thirds of the governing board must approve the measure for the ballot, and there is an overall cap on the tax rate and bond value.  See A Look A Voter Approval Requirements for Local Taxes by the Legislative Analyst’s Office.

Many of those requirements sound a lot like the typical accountability provisions built into local transportation sales tax measures.  

But did Proposition 39 change to the 55% threshold make a difference for schools?  According to Ballotpedia, prior to 2000, about 60% of all measures passed.  Post 2000, that number has climbed significantly.  From 2008 to 2016, approximately 80% of all measures have passed.  This conclusion is also supported in the work of Michael Coleman, who advises the League of California Cities among others.  See Local Super Majority Voting Rules and Results).  

That is more kids in better schools.  It's time to get them on better roads.

Our state's strong reliance on local sales tax measures to fund transportation needs has divided the state into a patchwork of "haves" and" have nots."  Currently, only 24 counties (albeit a majority of the state’s population) have had success getting two-thirds of their voters to support a local source of sales tax funding.  But 34 do not.  Of course, this does not help travel in the state as drivers, cyclists, pedestrians, shipping companies and transit riders endure the trip on under-funded roads. 

In the last Legislative session, Assembly member Jim Frazier (D-Oakley) introduced ACA 4 to reduce the voter threshold for approval of local tax measures for transportation from 66.6% to 55%.  We hope he does it again.