Measure Y and Measure G propaganda machine
August 14, 2014
OPINION By RICHARD SCHMIDT
In the early 2000s, San Luis Obispo’s management decided it wanted more money. It would come from a locally-imposed tax. They had no grand vision for what they’d do with the money, nothing like, say, buying a greenbelt to surround the city or something else residents actually wanted. They just wanted more money. From anyplace. For anything.
I tripped over this story while researching Measure G, the sales tax we vote on this November. But, truthfully, I had no idea the story I’d uncover by looking through some old city records would be so weird.
By mid-2003, city hall’s money quest had crystallized to the point city mangers persuaded the city council to let them hire a polling firm to determine how to persuade voters to vote for something. The polling consultant, known today after several name changes as FM3 (Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz and Associates), has to date done six taxpayer-funded polls to figure out how to manipulate city voters to tax themselves.
This first poll, in 2003, was pure fishing expedition. The pollsters tested voter sentiment on a sales tax, a bond, or a property tax assessment (these options each specified things the revenue would be used for).
One option tested was a quarter cent sales tax for paramedics and police; another was a bond measure for a new police station; another was a sales tax for a new police station; then those basics were paired with other options – bridge repair, storm drain repair, park maintenance, street resurfacing, more traffic signals, and so on, and the impact on voters of the various additions and subtractions was quantified. A property tax for park maintenance or storm drains was also tested.
Voters were unimpressed. Despite huge respect for first responders following 9/11, few cared to build a new police headquarters to replace one built within memory of many of the voters polled.
There were only two things voters clearly liked among items polled: replacing “older, deteriorating bridges,” and “purchasing and permanently preserving open space.” Open space, especially in the form of an undeveloped greenbelt surrounding the city, was a recognized political winner and something residents clamored for. That open space was tested only as add-on bait rather than as a primary purpose for a tax suggests City Hall wasn’t trying to respond to anything the public wanted, but merely to its own money hunger.
The 2003 pollster concluded “it [open space] might win support if it were part, or the focus, of an expenditure initiative.” (So, when Measure Y came around, the city cynically listed open space among top uses for the tax even though only 3 percentof this year’s Y revenue goes to open space, and much of that for bureaucratic expenses rather than land acquisition.)
But bridge replacement? That was a hot mini-issue of the moment. Collapse of an ill-maintained bridge over Stenner Creek had closed Foothill Boulevard between Santa Rosa and California, a major traffic artery, creating a huge nuisance for motorists. Voters extrapolated, with little knowledge, there might be other bridges that could cause similar inconvenience. Had it not been for the Foothill fiasco, it’s doubtful “bridges” would have been on any voter’s mind.
Overall, voters weren’t disposed to approve any new tax. “There is little enthusiasm among voters for a list of one-time improvement measures or for sustaining or improving services with additional funds,” the pollster concluded. Other than bridges and open space, few of the proposed tax purposes achieved even the poll’s “indifference point” (the pollster’s terminology) of “don’t care one way or the other,” and most items fell into the “just don’t care” range.
Full Speed Ahead! One might think such dismal polling would lead city hall to back off. But money lust was in their hearts, so they kept going, focusing on a general-purpose sales tax they could use for anything while telling voters they would use it for things voters wanted. They believed, correctly as it turned out, that with intensive “public education,” voters would fall into line. The city simply needed to “educate” voters in order to change their votes.
By 2005, staff were discussing with the city council a “public information campaign” to promote a city sales tax. There was more polling by FM3, and also advice from a taxpayer-paid elections consultant, Lew Edwards Group (LEG), which advertises its “extensive experience in assisting local agencies in California with public education programs in preparation for … ballot measures,” and claims 90 percent success rate for tax elections with which it is associated. (This outfit is working for the Cuesta College and Grover Beach tax campaigns. They did additional revenue-raising work for the city in 2003 and 2004.)
So, in May 2005, the scheme for a November 2006 tax vote was laid out to the city council. An elaborate staff report played on fears the city would go broke without a new sales tax. FM3’s latest polling continued to test what voters would vote for, and had got to the point of testing alternate wordings to differentiate the impact on voter sentiments of different ways of framing messages. It was all, the council was told, “scientific.”
Some of FM3’s findings and recommendations – all of which were used in one way or another to promote what became Measure Y:
• Including an end date for the tax (“sunset provision”) increased support.
• If voters are told “the City needs additional funds to provide the level of city services that residents need and want,” support increases.
• While voters rated city services highly, they were discontent with “traffic management to reduce congestion.” That led to listing “congestion relief” as a use for the tax. (“Congestion relief” under Y has largely involved costly messing with traffic signals to make traffic flow even more annoying. Nonetheless, for G, “congestion relief” remains a stated purpose!)
• “The strongest argument overall reminds voters of the 22 million dollars … the state has taken from San Luis Obispo over the years, as well as the three million dollars it continues to take each year.” (This is being used again for G, despite debatability of its relevance since new state cutbacks are largely a thing of the past. By the way, $22 million in cuts over 15 years averages about $1.5 million per year, which is a mere rounding error in a $100+ million per year budget.)
• Emphasizing “local control” by keeping tax dollars here played well with voters.
• “The objective of the revenue enhancement measure should be to ‘preserve and maintain’ vital services.”
“Public Education.” Micromanagement of the message for Measure Y was further enhanced by advice from LEG consultants, who told the City Council: “A comprehensive city-funded . . . Public Education Program . . . must be conducted” to assure success.
LEG did, however, finger a paradox the city would have to overcome. FM3’s polling revealed voters were happy with city services, and saw no deficiencies, other than traffic congestion. So, then, how to get them to vote for a tax to improve services they were happy with? The city might even be accused of “crying wolf” about needing money to maintain services. This, LEG cautioned, meant treading carefully, to “identify and utilize the main messages that garner over a majority vote in positively educating your constituents.” Then they listed messages that “should be used virtually exclusively.” Basically, the strategy was to scare voters, then lure them in.
Here are some messages the paid consultant LEG recommended:
• Without the tax, the city will have to cut back firefighters and paramedics.
• Even with the tax, “the City’s sales tax rate would still be lower than that paid by 87 percent of the state’s residents.”
• The city has had to dip into its reserve funds to provide services.
• Without the tax, the city “will no longer be able to provide important services, such as paving streets, upgrading 100 year old storm drains, and keeping up local parks.”
• They cited the same $22 million state funds cut and “local control” arguments as FM3.
• Emphasizing “fiscal accountability” was essential to gain voter trust, and “including independent oversight in the [wording of the] Measure” was also essential.
• Listing within the tax measure text, which appears on the ballot itself, examples of how funds might be used: increase police, fire, emergency services; adding firefighters and paramedics; repairing/maintaining city streets; reducing traffic congestion; fixing storm drainage; maintaining parks. (Such listing was done, and is disingenuous: as a general tax, the funds can be spent on anything, so the list is mere bait City Hall can ignore once the voter is caught and the tax is in the bank.)
Anyone familiar with the selling of Measure Y, and the current selling of Measure G, will recognize every one of these sales pitches. But voters might not have realized whence they came – from taxpayer-funded consultants who cooked them up for City Hall to dish out to voters.
Delineating strategic messaging was one thing, but how to get from still skeptical voters to a winning tax? That took LEGs’ “Public Information Program.”
The consultant delivered a playbook for how to do this. It advised, in its early phase, personal meetings of city officials with “opinion leaders;” followed by mailings to “opinion leaders;” then glossy mass mailings to “constituents” (i.e., voters) – the city did four of these mass mailers, which were singularly devoid of information; planting news stories in media; running a speakers’ bureau of key city staff to go to community groups and sell the tax.
The piece de la resistance of the “education program” was convening a city-sponsored “Ad Hoc Citizens Committee carefully composed,” as LEG consultants put it, “of a defined group of key stakeholders who can provide the City with additional input.” The assumption was this city committee could morph into a campaign committee once the item was on the ballot, at which time City Hall itself could not legally campaign (but could leave its earlier “educational” propaganda on its website as authoritative “information” for all to see). The campaign committee would be the recipient of the poll-tested agreed-upon campaign messaging, paid for by taxpayers who were also the target of the messaging.
Throughout this process, careful message control was essential. “Communications,” LEG warned, “must be centralized to a designated City representative and message discipline imposed to ensure consistent, centralized information.”
LEG concluded the city had a lot to do and not much time to do it in. While most cities doing comparable taxes had an 18-month “education” schedule, this city was already well beyond that point. “The Council should act now to authorize funding and deployment on its Public Information Program,” LEG said. The consultant provided City Hall with a detailed war plan, 45 separate actions that needed to take place, and a timeline of when each should happen in the 14 months available to accomplish them. Deployment and implementation were ready to go. Voters would be educated!
More polling. While “educating” voters progressed, City Hall had FM3 do more polling, to track how things were going, to determine how to convince voters happy with city services to believe those services were in trouble, and to come up with final wording for the ballot measure, based on what those polled responded to. They also worked on testing and perfecting pro-tax electioneering arguments.
In its report on a June 2006 poll, FM3 said the “education” campaign was producing results. Now, they found, instead of skeptical voters who could be swayed against a tax by negative arguments, when voters were “educated” by FM3 pollsters, they became virtually impervious to negative arguments about the tax.
Then, in July 2006, City Hall sprang the big scare. The city, administrators told the council, would have to cut police and fire services if a sales tax was not passed. (And, remember, this was before the recession, which presented its own new opportunities for telling residents about the city’s dire financial needs.)
In an unusually carefully crafted report to the council, City Administrator Ken Hampian laid out the latest version of the “educational” arguments discussed above (Did the council need educating too? Or was this for the public’s benefit? Or was it merely an example of LEGs’ centralized messaging?). “Without new, significant revenues,” Hampian said, “we are not going to keep pace with our needs in critical areas such as street paving, traffic congestion and enforcement, flood protection, paramedic services, open space preservation, neighborhood code enforcement and senior programs.” Those items were all FM3-tested bait designed to be persuasive in the face of any contrary evidence.
Hampian concluded: “The time has now come to place this measure before the voters so they have the opportunity to directly participate in making this important decision about the community’s future.” He urged the council to put the matter on that November’s ballot, and they did.
After so much clever taxpayer-financed polling and consultant-designed “education,” the outcome was a foregone conclusion. The city finally had its local sales tax.
Sunset. One might have imagined once voters approved the tax, taxpayer-funded polling about it would end. But it didn’t. After a brief hiatus, it has continued, with city council approval.
One of the things pollsters had found essential for passage of 2006’s Measure Y, a limited life for the tax, or “sunset,” presented the city with a problem to manage – preventing the tax’s actually going away at the end of 8 years, in early 2015, when Measure Y automatically expires. City Hall was determined this sunset should never tint the western horizon. They had their tax, and they wanted to make it permanent. That meant perpetual campaigning. Paid for by taxpayers.
So, FM3’s polling continued. There were three polls before passage of Measure Y in 2006, the first of those the multi-tax fishing expedition, and there have been three more since its passage, in 2010, 2011, and 2013, when no fishing expedition was needed. It’s fair to say FM3 has been among Measure Y’s beneficiaries.
Recent polls have been called “Citizen Satisfaction Surveys,” a bureaucratic toying with language, purpose, and meaning that would warm the heart of George Orwell. But they look like the same old campaign strategizing as before Y passed. They’ve even taken on a tinge of the classic “push poll” in which “questions” contain content intended to “push” the respondent in a particular direction.
Polling began again in 2010 because City Manager Katie Lichtig wanted the city council to put renewal of Measure Y on the November 2012 ballot – almost three-and-a-half years prior to its sunset – a schedule meant to assure continuance of the tax with no chance of possible interruption. She scratched that schedule, however, after the City of Bell scandal broke; she thought their scandal might hurt tax renewal here.
Nonetheless, the first two post-Y polls prepared for a 2012 election. The 2011 poll found support for Y had softened a bit since the 2010 poll, 18 months earlier. More alarming, when opposition arguments were given “equal time” with arguments in support of renewal, voter support dropped further. Even so, FM3 concluded, tax renewal wasn’t in much trouble. A bit of renewed public education should take care of everything.
FM3, in its December 2011 report to the city council, said almost all their newly-tested pro-tax arguments worked with voters. Three pro-tax arguments, FM3 said, “stand out.” They are:
• Renewal “gives San Luis Obispo more local control and keeps tax dollars in San Luis Obispo.”
• “Measure Y funds have gone into infrastructure but needed infrastructure is not finished and measure Y renewal is needed to continue improvements.”
• “The local sales tax has allowed the city to avoid even deeper cuts.”
Each of these carefully nuanced statements comes close to being untruthful, nuance most voters would miss entirely while grasping the intended message. But no matter, they form the backbone of the Yes on G story line, and that is why they were created, tested, and re-tested, at taxpayer expense, to see which would best manipulate voters to say “Yes – I’ll tax myself again.”
How nice for an “independent citizens committee” (today’s Yes on G campaign committee) to be the beneficiary of such taxpayer-funded campaign-strategy largesse.
Mop-Up. After Lichtig backed away from the 2012 election, only one municipal election remained prior to Y’s sunset – November 2014. So, of course, there needed to be more polling.
One line of polling involved scaring people into thinking that, as if we were still in the depths of the recent recession, if the tax isn’t renewed, basic services will have to be cut. (This proposition is dubious: City revenues have risen steadily before counting Y’s funds, and are projected to continue to rise for the foreseeable future even without Measure G’s funds. The city now has a robust surplus well in excess of its “rainy day fund” target.)
Polled voters were asked to prioritize what they would cut – no doubt to rub in the point of the propagandistic question’s if-you-don’t-vote-Yes-this-will-happen subtext. What did voters cut? Near the top were two pet City Hall programs which suck millions from fulfilling Measure Y promises: “downtown improvements,” and the city’s “economic development program” — City Hall-speak for “subsidies to real estate developers.”
The 2013 survey also had a question that illuminates doubts about city hall’s spending intentions for Measure G funds. In addition to the tax, the question said, “The City may also place a nonbinding advisory measure on the ballot. The advisory measure would let San Luis Obispo voters express their priorities to the City Council for using half cent sales tax revenue.”
57 percent of voters said inclusion of that advisory on the same ballot as the tax would make them more likely to favor the tax! Including such a question seems a simple gesture of respect towards voters, even if insincere on city hall’s part, and even if the city’s legally entitled to ignore whatever voters say. Still, the city refused to place that advisory measure on the ballot, even though it would increase the likelihood of the tax’s passage. Why? One can conclude city hall doesn’t care what voters want – they’ve got their own uses for the taxes, so why muddy things by giving residents something they can wave in the council’s face when Measure G funds, like Measure Y funds, get used for things never mentioned to voters at election time?
Shocking! I was shocked to discover our little city used our money year after year to wage an incessant propaganda war on voters, first to propagandize us into passing a tax, then to convince us to re-up the tax. Frankly, I’d no clue our elected officials, including two incumbents up for re-election this year, engaged in anything of this sort. It’s sleazy. Why is our city doing such crazy stuff?
What happened to the city we respected, and which respected us in return? Why has non-resident-responsive big-city machine politics become the norm in little San Luis Obispo’s City Hall? Something is seriously out of whack.
The notion of City Hall using our money year after year to develop pollster-tested election talking points to manipulate us, and turning that poll-tested election messaging over to “proponents” of Y and G for campaign use, is repugnant. The city hasn’t just put its thumb on the scale of election fairness; it has placed its corpulent derriere on one side of the scale.
As for the bottom line: Can Measure G be defeated? I think yes, if city voters can cut through years of this carefully-crafted propaganda aimed at them and see behind the curtain. What’s behind the curtain matters: it shows where, why, and how the “stories” voters are being told originated.
As of today, there’s no actual campaign against Measure G. Shouldn’t there be one?
Richard Schmidt is a former journalist; an architect and teacher who lives in San Luis Obispo. He signed the ballot argument urging a No vote on Measure G.
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