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December 1999

Local Government
How to Slip New Taxes Past Skeptical Voters
By Barry Witt

Next time a local city council asks voters to approve a tax increase, don't expect officials to mention the word "tax" and don't expect to hear much about the issue at all.

Those were among the strategies a top political consultant outlined October 11 to local officials at the League of California Cities' annual conference in San Jose.

Proposition 218, which California voters approved in 1996, requires local government to put virtually all tax measures on the ballot. So strategies for getting such measures passed have become particularly important to the people charged with running cities.

"The voters are very, very skeptical about what you all do," warned consultant Max Besler, of the Sacramento firm Townsend Raimundo Besler & Usher, which ran the 1996 campaign that persuaded Santa Clara County voters to increase sales taxes to pay for transportation programs. "They're very, very skeptical about anything you put on the ballot."

So to get something passed, Mr. Besler offered several pieces of advice, including avoidance of the "tax word" whenever possible and what he calls his "run silent, run deep tactics."

"Don't do any press releases," he said, because "what happens in the newspaper will kill you." Even a single opponent usually gets an opportunity to state his case in news stories, the consultant noted. Efforts to gain publicity only serves to "prop up the other side ... You're just providing them with a forum to make a case against you."

Instead, Mr. Besler said cities should engage in intensive polling and focus-group research prior to putting a measure on the ballot in order to craft the most attractive-sounding ballot title and summary; prepare the arguments that voters find most persuasive, and identify the community figures whose endorsements count the most with voters.

With that information in hand, he said, a campaign should target swing voters and probable supporters with direct mail.

Mr. Besler noted that public money cannot be used for "advocacy" literature on behalf of a tax measure, but he encouraged the cities to use public funds on the polling work that goes on before putting a measure on the ballot. He also advised cities to poll voters annually to gauge the best time to seek their approval for a tax measure.

San Jose is among the cities spending money on such polls. It paid more than $20,000 in July to test how a potential bond measure for new and expanded branch libraries might do with voters.

And in arguing for a ballot measure that asks voters to raise taxes, officials are best served by avoiding the "tax" term, Mr. Besler said.

"What you have to do is talk about benefits (the measure will bring)," he said. "When somebody starts to talk about the tax thing, you move away from that and talk about what the benefit is."

Other advice included using a broad range of people to sign ballot arguments. Particularly useful, Mr. Besler said, are "white hats" such as chamber of commerce and senior organization leaders. If voters see such organizations, in addition to representatives of law enforcement and labor, signing ballot arguments, they will think that all major segments of a community support a tax measure, not just the elected officials whose job it will be to spend the money.

Not everyone in Mr. Besler's audience was convinced of the merits of his "run silent" tactics.

"If and when we do a tax measure or a bond measure, I'll let the public know," said Patsy Marshall, a Buena Park city councilwoman whose city is considering a measure to pay for a new police headquarters. "I have confidence in the voters."

Barry Witt is a staff writer of the San Jose Mercury News, in which this article was published on October 12. Copyright 1999 San Jose Mercury News. All rights reserved. Reproduced with permission. Use of this material does not imply endorsement of the San Jose Mercury News.