Tuesday’s election was bad news for anti-tax forces as voters in Westminster, La Palma and Fountain Valley each approved increasing their local sales tax by 1-cent. Their respective city councils had placed the sales tax hikes on the ballots in order to avoid further budget cuts and – to hear them tell it – stave of municipal bankruptcy.
Here are the numbers as of this evening:
All three sales tax hikes passed by 19-20% margins. Proponents had several key advantages in securing passage:
- Taxpayer-funded “public education” campaigns through which the cities communicated to voters about dire consequences of not securing more revenue, i.e. raising taxes.
- Deceptive but politically powerful ballot titles that mislead voters into thinking these were dedicated sales taxes that could only be used to fund public safety. For example: Fountain Valley’s “911 Response Police-Fire/Essential City Services Measure.”
- Strong “Yes” political campaigns funded by city employee unions – especially police and firefighter unions.
Westminster’s measure garnered the most attention. The police union spent about $70,000 on the “Yes” campaign, while the OC Taxpayers Association waged a “no” campaign. There was a lesser opposition campaign in Fountain Valley, and none in La Palma of which OC Daily is aware. Notwithstanding that variance, the results in each city were the same.
A ballot measure to repeal the 1-cent sales tax hike approved in 2014 by Stanton voters also fell short:
The repeal campaign was primarily funded by local businessman Rick Muth, whose family business ORCO Block has been in Stanton for generations; it waged a vigorous campaign for repeal. However, the Yes on Measure QQ campaign was up against the same obstacle as anti-tax forces in Westminster, La Palma and Fountain Valley — and then some. For the past two years, the City of Stanton had mounted a taxpayer-funded public relations campaign aimed to convincing residents the tax hike was already improving their quality of life – the clear implication of which is that repeal would be disastrous.
Furthermore, the wording of the ballot measure was poisonous to its chances of passage: most voters are not going to vote to “Eliminate Funding for 9-1-1 Public Safety and Essential Services Protection.” This tactic is common to all these measures: deceiving voters into believe these are special taxes – which legally require two-thirds approval — when in reality the revenue goes into the general fund and can be spent on whatever the city council pleases.
More Local Tax Hikes On The Horizon?
Passage of these three sales tax hikes – and the failure of the Stanton repeal measure – dramatically increase the likelihood other Orange County cities will resort to this expedient when faced with politically painful budget cuts. They all passed by large margins, which will convince city leaders the political blowback from putting a sales tax hike on the ballot involved less political risk than being targeted for defeat by the public safety unions. At least some of the approval margin is due to the unusually high Democratic voter turnout, but that might be lost on cities desperate for additional revenues.
Furthermore, a playbook has been clearly written for other OC cities to follow:
- Announce a budget crisis and present it as a choice between raising taxes or bankruptcy and higher crime.
- Have city employee unions reinforce this message in the media and at city council meetings.
- Hire the Lew Edwards Group to conduct a taxpayer-funded “information” campaign to break-down voter resistance to a tax increase.
- Pretend the sales tax hike will only be spent on public safety
Give the tax hike a bullet-proof ballot title like “Don’t Eliminate Our Police Department/Save Our Wives and Children From Home Invasion/Public Safety Measure.”
Next up is the City of Placentia, which hired the Lew Edwards Group earlier this year. More on that later.