Policing, Jobs Will be Determinative Factors in Local Tax Votes

By Robb Korinke

There appears to be no help on the way from the federal government for localities still reeling from quarantine-driven revenue losses, while navigating an emerging civil right movement and persistent public health crisis from COVID-19. Many will have no choice but to go to the ballot for new revenue in a totally unpredictable political environment. How can they navigate a complex new reality with voters?

It was already a bad year for local revenue measures as we saw a spate of March tax measures fall short – possibly the worst cycle for local taxes in modern state history. I would never counsel a city or county to put a tax measure up on a Primary ballot, and yet this year’s primary saw more than double the typical number of local measures in a Primary cycle. Whatever the thinking was, it was a bloodbath. Just 40 percent of the measures passed, where you would normally expect somewhere between 65 and 75 percent passage rate.

In my hometown of Long Beach a sales tax extension passed by the skin of its teeth – just 16 votes out of 100,000 cast -- after weeks of counting late absentees and provisional votes. This in a city where Bernie Sanders beat Biden by 10,000 and there were fewer than 20,000 ballots cast in the Republican Primary. This is not what you would call an anti-tax city and yet a popular local government barely extends an existing tax? A traditional sell on quality of life and essential services wasn’t working, and that’s before the world changed.

That said, many agencies may be counting themselves lucky they took their shot in March – before COVID hit the economy and before a civil rights movement put local governments’ largest line item on blast. I still believe the electorate is far more favorable in a General election (Nov 2018 saw an 81 percent passage rate) but the case to be made to voters this November is completely scrambled and there is no real map for success.

There is an interesting debate emerging among public administrators and the consulting class about how the suddenly wobbly economy can and will impact voter appetite for tax measures up and down the ballot. Certainly, a strong case can be made for public health and emergency services, and we haven’t even hit wildfire season. Does this outweigh voter concern about their own pocketbooks and local economies? Are the optics of even asking for more money in this environment worth it? If it avoids layoffs, you may not have a choice.

More interesting is the role of local police and police funding in future measures. Just as anti-union forces are awakening to a wedge issue between public employee unions and police unions, there is a tantalizing opportunity for anti-tax groups to turn progressive reformers against tax increases on the basis that they enlarge police budgets. Organized opponents of future tax measures will undoubtedly train their sights on the large percentage of proposed tax dollars that will go to the police budget to knock down progressive votes for the tax.

Cities and Counties, and their public safety departments, obviously need to get ahead of this. They should begin discussing now palatable police reforms that can be attached to any future revenue increase. advancing a local measure that can be effectively framed by opponents as opportunity to “defund” police is a dangerous gambit. Reform is going to be essential anyway, but positioning revenue enhancement as the best tool for progress and reform is a unique opportunity for a shared win.

Local budget processes will need to reflect this as well, irrespective of calls for new revenue. There were already percolating movements around budget priorities in many cities. Before the overt calls to “defund” police, there were organized community efforts around a “People’s Budget” in Oakland, Los Angeles and Long Beach, and likely others. Some of these already explicitly targeted police budgets, others were more aspirational about resourcing housing or mental health services.

Rather than wait for a People's Budget to show up as a cudgel, Cities might consider formalizing community input as a pressure valve. Vallejo has had seven years of Participatory Budgeting, which is much more structured – if narrow – engagement process with real dollars at stake.

Threading the needle between economic concerns and a boiling desire for social progress is no easy task, but local government can still stabilize their budgets and their communities with the right approach, but it’s going to take new thinking.

Robb Korinke is a co-founder of CaliforniaCityNews and a consultant with GrassrootsLab. He regularly advises local agencies on public information.