Vote “No” on the Measure X “county services” sales tax increase

by Sue Pricco and Michael Arata

Measure X, a 20-year, half-percent Contra Costa County sales tax increase, is on the November 3rd ballot. The “current pandemic” is among rationales advanced by the measure’s supporters.

In reality, however, Measure X got its start in May, 2019 – long before COVID-19 was even on the horizon – when five representatives of county employee organizations demanded that county supervisors drop a plan for a new transportation tax and sponsor a new “county services” tax instead.
The transportation-tax measure went ahead anyway, eventually as Measure J on March 3rd’s Primary ballot.  Itself pushing a half-percent sales-tax increase, Measure J failed.  Measure X deserves the same fate now.

For starters, Measure X is regressive, disproportionately affecting those least able to afford increased costs, particularly during a time of pandemic-driven financial hardship.  Thousands of small businesses have closed.  Millions of Californians are unemployed.   Those still working often see smaller paychecks.

Meanwhile, all must still pay (now or on a deferred basis) federal and state income taxes, payroll taxes, property taxes, auto-registration taxes, gasoline taxes, phone taxes, etc. ad nauseam.  With whatever money remains, individuals and families must still provide for necessities.

Except for food purchases, essential product needs — from paper towels to kids’ shoes, sometimes to replacement automobiles — have sales taxes added.

Oh, wait on the food exception.  If resources permit a sit-down restaurant dinner or a hot takeout meal, those foods ARE taxed.

Contra Costa sales-tax rates already range from 8.25% to 9.75%, tied for 7th highest among California’s 58 counties.  And another round of sales-tax leapfrog is not a game which County residents likely hope to “win.

The Measure X ballot question (the summary voters see on ballots) advertises various specific purposes, implying falsely that some are new obligations.

But hiding in the underlying County ordinance’s fine print is the fact that Measure X is actually a general tax, “solely for general governmental purposes and not for specific purposes.

In economic terms, Measure X dollars are fungible; they can be moved around.  So, for example, Measure X’s new millions could fund County-employee salary, current benefit, and large pension payments directly.

But behind a covering smokescreen of seeming legitimacy, the measure could alternatively finesse compensation boosts indirectly, by “freeing up” money budgeted for other purposes and then backfilling those budget categories with an injection of Measure X revenues.

It would not be the first time that a local government agency deployed such a maneuver.
As is, County employees have enjoyed a 20% salary/benefit increase over just the last three years, and a $166,673 average now in annual per-employee compensation cost — while many who’d pay the new sales tax would count themselves fortunate just to return to their own compensation levels of three years ago

What about the Measure X proponent claim of spending “oversight”?  An original ballot-question version characterized the measure as “requiring fiscal accountability.”  But a Superior Court judge removed that phrase after finding that the County’s related ordinance omitted it.  “Fiscal accountability” was apparently just an afterthought.

Finally, Measure X passage would leave at least seven Contra Costa city and town jurisdictions above the statutory 2% cap on local sales taxes.  So an underhanded legislative scheme was deployed.  State Senate Bill 1349, passed and signed at the last minute, allows the County’s sales-tax cap to increase from 2% effectively to at least 3.5% (or possibly 4%), in addition to the State’s 7.25% rate.

And this change, asserts the bill itself in Orwellian doublespeak, “does not constitute a change in, but is declaratory of, existing law.

Measure X deserves your determined “NO” vote.  For more information, visit CoCoTax.org and NOonX.info.
Sue Pricco is president of the Contra Costa Taxpayers Association.  Michael Arata is a co-founder of the Alliance of Contra Costa Taxpayers 

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