As a lot of readers know, the Alameda County transportation sales tax measure (Proposition B1) came just a few hundred votes short of the necessary 2/3 super-majority needed to pass. A transportation measure in Los Angeles also failed by a slim margin. Predictably, this has led to calls to water-down the vote threshold for transportation sales tax measures. Senator Carol Liu has already introduced a constitutional amendment, SCA-4, that would lower the threshold to 55%.
Bicycle and transit advocates were obviously disappointed that B1 failed. The measure would have increased bike/ped funding in the county, and prevented further cuts to the local bus system. So should they get on board with a lower 55% threshold? I think that may be ill-advised.
The advantage of the 66% threshold is that it ensures all constituencies have a seat at the table. That was not the case in 1986, when only a simple majority was needed. The result was that bike/ped advocates were completely shut out. Transit riders didn’t do so well either. Here is a comparison of the simple-majority 1986 and super-majority 2002 measures:
Note that Alameda county surpassed 80% approval. Other urban counties have also been generally successful with local measures, despite the 2/3 requirement.
So what went wrong this time? In the case of Alameda, the county over-reached. Unlike past measures, Proposition B1 had a controversial provision making the tax permanent. Many voters were concerned that once the existing expenditure plan was completed, the county would continue collecting the tax in perpetuity without input from the voters.
Some have also argued that a 2/3 requirement is inherently un-democratic, because it gives greater weight to the “No” vote. That is nonsense for a number of reasons. For one thing, all democracies have built-in safeguards to protect minority interests. And the “Yes” campaigns have an unfair fundraising advantage from the developers and the road lobby.
Ok, but even if mistakes were made in 1986, surely planners have learned their lesson. This is the 21st century, and planners are more knowledgeable, and will use the 55% threshold responsibly, right? I’ve heard a surprising number of environmental advocates make that case. Well, anyone who believes that, then I have a bridge to sell you.