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Measure A Forum a Debate of the Pros and Cons

Proponents and opponents face off in a discussion of a proposed extension of the half-cent transit sales tax.

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The Citizens Planning Foundation hosted a forum on Saturday to discuss Measure A, an extension of the current Measure D half-cent transportation sales tax. (Sonia Fernandez / Noozhawk photo)

Advocates and opponents of Measure A squared off in the Faulkner Gallery of the Santa Barbara Public Library on Saturday. The forum was hosted by the Citizens Planning Foundation.

On the dais were Community Environmental Council Executive Director Dave Davis, 1st District Supervisor Salud Carbajal, Buellton Mayor Russ Hicks, Santa Barbara City Councilwoman Helene Schneider, Scott Wenz from the group Cars are Basic and attorney Eugene Wilson, a member of Sustainable Transportation Advocates of Santa Barbara.

Up for a vote on this November’s ballot, Measure A is the extension of the current Measure D half-cent transportation sales tax, which expires in 2010. The current measure has been responsible for countywide transportation-related projects, including the widening of Highway 101 south of Milpas Street in Santa Barbara. It was passed by a simple majority in 1989.

While the money spent through Measure D paid for maintenance and repair projects countywide, there has been sentiment that more attention should have been paid to the freeway project. As a result, Measure A now would take $140 million off its projected $1.05 billion budget to dedicate to the freeway widening work, and distribute the remaining $910 million evenly between the North and South counties for the projects deemed most important.

Measure A also would continue the sales tax for another 30 years vs. the 20-year life span of Measure D, and unlike Measure D in 1989 will require a two-thirds vote.

Supporters of the measure — Davis, Carbajal, Hicks and Schneider — said that one of the benefits of continuing the sales tax would be to ensure funds for transportation projects, funds that would be protected during the times the state and federal governments reach into county coffers for funds. It is also a fair plan, which could be customized according to the needs of the two county regions, they said.

“Acting smart and early also saves us money in the long run,” said Schneider, pointing out aging infrastructure. The city of Santa Barbara relies on the transportation sales tax, which adds about $5 million to the city budget per year, money that would have to be pulled from other programs and services should the measure not pass.

Meanwhile, the opponents — Wenz and Wilson — had concerns that the measure required too much financial commitment without providing enough oversight, while continuing the dependency on the self-help measure.

“Measure D was supposed to be the icing on the cake,” he said. “We added things we couldn’t afford in interregional transportation with a few other local items. Now it’s become a major item on the budgets.” If Measure A doesn’t pass, local governments would have to go “back to basics,” he said — relying on General Fund money for transportation projects.

Alternatively, Wilson said, if the measure doesn’t pass, local jurisdictions would have to create their own half-cent sales taxes to keep funding projects they began under Measure D, which would provide more local control and greater oversight.

The downside of balkanizing the effort to fund a regional transportation issue, the Measure A supporters countered, would be that interregional transportation, such as light rail or freeway repair, would suffer for lack of equal participation. 

Another issue the panelists discussed was the two-thirds vote required of the Santa Barbara County Association of Government directors to make any of the periodic amendments to the spending plan of any jurisdiction. Each jurisdiction, regardless of population, has one vote.

“The city of Santa Barbara, which has 90,000 people, has one vote on that board of directors, so if it comes to (the city of Santa Barbara) changing what’s in that plan, you need to ask the people of North County whether you could change it,” said Wilson, who pointed out that North County “dominates” the SBCAG board.

On the other hand, according to Carbajal, it is precisely because of the differences between the North and South counties that Measure A is structured the way it is, with subregional committees and a citizens oversight committee.

On the issue of a local fuel usage tax or a carbon tax vs. sales tax, however, there was agreement from the supporting side and opposing side that, ideally, users of roads and transit could and probably should pay directly for those roads and transportation.

“In a perfect world, that’s where we should go,” said Davis, pointing out that with the increase in fuel prices in the last year, the amount of gasoline saved by consumers cutting back in six months “equals the annual production of offshore oil in the entire country.” Currently, however, the California Constitution doesn’t quite allow for a green tax to raise funds for transportation projects.

“We haven’t gotten there institutionally,” he said, “nor have we got there in terms of public opinion.”

Noozhawk staff writer Sonia Fernandez can be reached at [email protected]

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