Measure BB Half-Cent Sales Tax For Transportation Won In 2014 — What Are The Lessons For LA County?

The passage of the Measure BB half-cent sales tax for transportation in Alameda County last November provides a few lessons for all of those (including Move LA) who are thinking about putting a similar transportation measure on the ballot here, probably in 2016. One of the most salient is that it’s important to start the campaign early in order to build both consensus and ownership.

And this is Move LA’s focus: As talk of putting another sales tax measure on the ballot spreads into all subregions in LA County, Move LA has begun gathering elected officials, community leaders, stakeholder groups and ordinary citizens in town hall meetings and in smaller convenings to start building consensus on projects people need and want. Join our 7th Annual Transportation Conversation at Union Station on April 22 and find out!

Both Alameda and LA counties put half-cent sales tax measures on the ballot in 2012, and both went down in defeat, failing by about 1% of the vote — which totaled 700 votes in Alameda County and 16,000 votes in the more populous LA County. Local sales tax measures in California require a 2/3 supermajority to win, which sets a very high bar for victory and which many say is undemocratic. Bills have been introduced in the state legislature to reduce the voter requirement to 55%.

When both measures lost in 2012 in 2 counties that had previously been successful in passing sales tax measures for transportation — LA County has 3 and Alameda County has 2 — it sent shock waves across the nation.

(Note: Analysis of the Measure BB campaign is taken from Joe Petri’s story “Why Alameda County Voters Said Yes to Transportaton Funding” in the March issue of Mass Transit magazine.)

Below are some of the similarities in the sales tax campaigns in Alameda County and LA County:

  • Like LA County, Alameda County needs diverse transportation investments in transit, bike/ped projects and roads since it is urbanized (cities include Oakland and Berkeley) but also has suburban and even rural areas of farmland and wineries.
  • Like Measure J in LA County in 2012, Measure BB in Alameda County in 2014 did well in urban areas with good transit service, but did less well in suburban areas with little or no transit service. Measure J lost, however, while Measure BB won.
  • Like transit advocates in LA County, advocates in Alameda County didn’t give up after the 2012 defeat, and immediately began building new coalitions by seeking ideas from the ground up.
  • The major players in the sales tax campaigns in both LA and Alameda counties were business-labor-environmental coalitions.

Below are some of the differences between Alameda’s winning Measure BB campaign in 2014 and LA’s losing Measure J campaign in 2012:

  • The successful Measure BB in 2014 both extended for 30 years a half-cent sales tax that had been approved in 2000 (and otherwise would have ended in 2045) and increased the tax by a half cent, resulting in a 1-cent sales tax for 30 years (until 2045).  Measure J merely extended LA County’s existing Measure R half-cent sales tax for another 30 years, which would have provided more financing capacity to build projects now.
  • While LA County has favored waiting to go back to voters until the next presidential election in 2016 because of the larger, more pro-transit voter turnout it is likely to draw, Alameda County chose to go to the ballot in a low-turnout non-presidential election.
  • Alameda County’s 2012 measure was a permanent tax (with no “sunset”) — which some feel was a liability in the 2012 campaign — unlike the 2012 measure in LA County, which would have extended the existing Measure R sales tax for 30 years (from 2038 to 2068), which didn’t win either.
  • While both LA County and Alameda County measures focused on funding transit and roads, creating jobs and reducing traffic congestion, Measure BB in Alameda County also campaigned on:
    •  keeping transit fares affordable for seniors and those with disabilities;
    •  increased bus service;
    • providing affordable student transit passes; and
    • expanding walking and biking infrastructure.

Lessons learned in Alameda County:

  • Alameda County took great pains with the Measure BB campaign to regionalize the message because of the diversity of transportation needs in urban, suburban and rural places — advertising, for example, the amount of money that would be spent building bus rapid transit in the East Bay.
  • Alameda County had a robust field operation in place in 2014 that knocked on doors and made phone calls leading up to the election; Los Angeles County’s Measure J campaign started late and had a minimal field campaign.
  • Tom Clifford, principal for CliffordMoss, which ran the Measure BB outreach campaign in Alameda County, said the campaign invested in a mix of TV, web, radio and print advertisements, but that analysis after the election showed him that he should have cut back on his TV advertising budget and instead put the investment into regionalized mailers that would have sent targeted messages to different parts of the county.
  • Clifford said that clearly it is possible to win in a year with low voter turnout if the message is targeted to the likely voters. “We took a high end number of possible voters and ran an algorithm of their likelihood to vote and decided to [target the campaign at those most likely to vote yes]. A hard ‘yes’ was already with us and the hard ‘no’ was a group we were [not likely to sway]. We focused on that soft middle and that’s where we were targeting our pieces.” He added that he believes it’s important not to spend too much time rebutting opposition but rather to move forward aggressively with the campaign message.

Clifford told Mass Transit magazine that he believes the mistake agencies make with initiatives like BB is that they try to get the story of the campaign out to the public in the last 3 months of the campaign, when in fact the campaign story has to be crafted with lots of stakeholder input in the two years prior to the election.

The Alameda County Transportation Commission’s final plan was developed based not just on the county’s needs but also on research into what voters cared about. He said the commission created a Venn diagram showing the intersection of what the commission had determined the needs to be and the research on what voters cared about. This intersection was, he said, the sweet spot that led to victory.

He added that coalition building was essential to Measure BB’s success because it created ownership in the community. “People support what they create,” he said, adding that people were not just supporting a sales tax to implement a plan that the Alameda County Transportation Commission had formulated, but one that they had helped formulate.


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