Mixing words and deceiving SLO County voters

July 24, 2016
Gordon Mullin

Gordon Mullin


Our SLO county council of government (SLOCOG) and seven cities have recently agreed to put a sales tax measure before the citizens this November and the governments and the media are already staking out positions. The money, if the measure passes, is intended for county-wide roads and transportation and you can be assured we will be treated to a four month long sales pitch paid for by us taxpayers.

Ironic isn’t it. It’s our tax dollars that will largely fund the advertising to convince us to further tax ourselves. Now people tend to believe what the government and the press tells them and it is unfortunate that the Tribune and SLOCOG, to date, have chosen to incorrectly present the sales tax initiative as it really is. Here’s how.

The Tribune, in both a story a week ago and most recently in an editorial this weekend, chose to misrepresent the sales tax increase as a “half cent increase” when they know that that is not true. In fact it’s not a ‘half cent” increase, it’s a one-half percent increase. I appreciate that to many folks it’s a trivial variation but in the upcoming battle over the initiative it’ll make a difference.

Also, SLOCOG, in both a brochure I was given this last Thursday and on the website they built supporting the measure, tout the increase as “a half cent,” not as half a percent as it really will be.

Now you may ask- ‘What’s the big deal?’ Aren’t they the same? No, they’re not.

Frankly a half cent increase doesn’t sound like much as the supporters of the measure well know. It’s only half a penny, isn’t it? However, in truth, it’s not a half cent increase- it’s half of one percent.

For the math challenged, on a $200 purchase, under the half-cent proposal the cost would be, well, half a penny; presumably rounded up to a single cent. Under a one-half percent tax it would be $1 A substantial difference

When I ran for a seat on the SLO City Council two years ago, many is the time when I was discussing Measure G the one half percent increase passed by the majority of voters in 2014, folk kept saying ‘a half cent’ and frequently, even after I pointed out that was not the case, they said “but I read it in the Trib” or “the city said it’s half a cent.”

They believed the tax would be only half a penny per purchase because that’s what they were told.

Note that SLOCOG, the principal driver of this current initiative claims on its supporting website: “In Nov. 2016, voters will be asked to approve a ½ cent sales tax to address these needs.” Yet, further into the website, under the “ordinance” link which cites the actual wording of the initiative, they use the correct “one-half of one percent (0.5%).” It’s not that they didn’t know.

In turn, the Tribune this weekend, in its editorial extoling the virtues of the measure several times referred to the “half cent” increase.  And they know that’s not true.

Many will acknowledge that the true cost is ‘half a percent’ but many, far too many in my experience, will have that half a penny cost stuck in their heads and will be far more likely to think, “what the hell.  It’s only half a penny. Why should I care?” And they too get to vote.

Supporters of the SLO city measure during the city’s Measure G initiative in Nov. 2014 would typically refer to the ‘half cent’ increase. Did and do the supporters of these initiatives purposely misrepresent the basic fact of the increase knowing that some segment of the voters will actually think the added cost will be a mere half a penny for each purchase?

I can’t look into the soul of these folk and uncover whether they had knowingly misled the public. I don’t have that power. But look closely at how our governments and the media characterize the measure in the future. If they continue to mislead the public I think it fair to assume that they know some voters will take them at their word and will be knowingly lying to the voters.

I hope that won’t be the case but we’ll discover their character by their actions over the next four months.

Whether you support or oppose this initiative in November, I hope that both our governments and our press will take the time to accurately present the facts to voters.

Half a penny is not equivalent to one-half percent.

Words matter, or they should.

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Good job Gordon. I will be watching to see if any government agency uses government resources to advocate for this initiative. County announced at a Board of Supervisors meeting that once the board votes to put the initiative on the ballot, which they have done, it is illegal for government to use government resources to advocate for said initiative.


I appreciate you writing this piece. I’d never considered the wording and agree that the subtle difference between 1/2 cent and 1/2 percent is misleading – at least from my perspective.

When the State raises sales tax it is proposed in terms of a percentage (0.25%) not “1/4 of a cent” (ie. California’s sales and use tax rate was increased by 0.25%, from 7.25% to 7.5% due to Proposition 30) .

I’m fairy sure the wording was intentionally crafted by the SLO-powers-that-be to minimize the perceived impact to the voters.

Interesting to note…California State Controller Betty T. Yee, in her July 2016 Central Coast Regional Newsletter, quotes a recent report by the California State Board of Equalization, The report reveals gasoline consumption during FY 2014-2015 was the largest annual increase in more than 10 years, though California households still consume less gas than the national average. From 2002-2011, California’s share of U.S. gasoline consumption declined from 11.2 percent to 10.8 percent.

Yee also quotes a California Transportation Commission report that shows steady declines in gasoline tax revenue as more fuel-efficient vehicles travel longer distances with the same amount of gas which means less state revenue.

I strongly propose the Governor’s pet project, the High Speed Rail, be put on the back burner, and instead, use the Rail’s billions of state dollars for the necessary maintenance projects for highways, streets, and roads throughout California. Prioritize state spending!

My opinion: this tax increase will only fund an increase in wages and pension benefits. The ongoing escalation of wages and benefits reduces the funds available for services and infrastructure improvements. The higher the wages and benefits, the less money there is for actual work. The more the government employees are paid the less they have to accomplish because there are no funds.

One could say that the proposed tax increase is because electric vehicles are hitting roads and not the gas pumps, pumps that were programmed for tax revenue based on road use. How about a robust DMV fee for electric vehicles instead of surcharging everyone.

And bicycles!

It’s worse than you think. The current tax rate in the county ranges from 7.5% to 8%, depending upon where you live. Adding another .5% to those rates gets you an INCREASE of 6 1/2% to 6 2/3%, again depending upon where you live. 1/2 of 1% seems innocent enough until you compare it with what you’re already paying.

I have never met anyone who was confused about the proposed sales tax increase. California sales taxes have always been established as a percentage of the sale price ( before rebates or rewards). You would likely have exactly the same number of people who would be confused by any alternative language; because some people are IDIOTS.