By KEVIN McCALLUM
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
If voters don’t keep their eyes out for the campaign to pass a sales tax hike in Santa Rosa this fall, they just might miss it.
Unlike previous sales tax drives, such as the full-scale political campaign to pass Measure O in 2004, supporters of the latest quarter-cent sales tax increase say voters should expect a far more low-key campaign this time around.
“I think voters need to know they’re not going to have multiple mailers stuffed in their mailboxes advocating for this,” said Mayor Susan Gorin, who is spearheading the campaign.
Three weeks after the Santa Rosa City Council voted to place the sales tax measure on the ballot, the campaign for what is being called Measure P remains in stealth mode. Members of a small group of supporters are quietly crafting ballot arguments to explain why they believe the city needs the extra funding.
But that’s about all they have planned.
There will be no fundraising, no TV, radio or print advertisements, and no organized door-to-door efforts by politicians or city employees to push for the measure. Even those on the committee to pass the measure admit they won’t be giving it their all.
“Am I in favor of putting the tax measure on the ballot? Yes, I am,” said former city Councilwoman Janet Condron. “Am I going to go out and fight that battle in the community? No, I’m not.”
Supporters cite several reasons why the tone of Measure P will differ sharply from that of Measure O seven years ago.
The first is money. There is little financial support in the community for the measure, and that sharply limits what can be done, said Herb Williams, the veteran political consultant behind Measure O. Williams, along with rival political consultant Terry Price, are informally advising the campaign supporters.
With the recession battering the personal finances of voters and the fortunes of local businesses, the climate couldn’t be worse for trying to raise money for a tax measure, said Councilwoman Jane Bender.
“To go out and say to people, ‘Will you give us money to go out and campaign to raise your taxes?’ That’s hard,” she said of the measure that would bring the city’s sales tax rate to 9.5 percent.
But just because the campaign will be low-key doesn’t mean it won’t be effective, Williams said.
Measure O, because it was dedicated to the specific purpose of supporting public safety and gang prevention programs, required two-thirds of the vote to pass. Measure P, which supports general city services, needs 50 percent, Williams said.
An exhaustive political campaign may not even be needed, Price said. The public is acutely aware that the recession has dealt a blow to all levels of government, and that further service cuts are looming, he said.
“The polling information shows that the voters are very well educated on the issue,” Price said.
Even if they had the cash to spend, a slick political campaign might backfire, said Councilwoman Marsha Vas Dupre.
“The money for any kind of flashy campaign is going to turn the voters off. It’s counterproductive,” she said.
So what supporters instead envision is an austere, factual, straightforward campaign that gives voters the information they need to make a decision.
“We’re not trying to do a sell job here, we’re trying to put the facts out there and let people decide,” said former Councilman Steve Rabinowitsh, a member of the committee.
The lack of aggressive advocacy should not be interpreted as a sign of a flaccid campaign, he said. On the contrary, the core of the committee — he, Condron, Gorin, Bender, Price and Williams — shows that people from across the political spectrum agree the measure is critical.
Council members and supporters speak to community groups and others about the measure when asked, Rabinowitsh said.
“I do think there is a commitment to this campaign,” he said.
Others aren’t so sure. Councilman Gary Wysocky voted to put the measure on the ballot but only after expressing reservations about the regressive nature of a sales tax and concern about the lack of employee concessions to date.
He now says he wonders where the campaign went.
“I was told that unanimity from the council was important for the consultants to run the campaign,” Wysocky said. “I look forward to the campaign we were promised.”
Others say they support the measure but will have a tough time campaigning for it. Ernesto Olivares said he will be voting for it and thinks others should too, but he doesn’t feel right about trying to persuade others because he knows the council has missed some chances to improve the city’s finances.
“I can’t honestly go out there and tell people we’ve done everything we possibly could,” Olivares said.
John Sawyer put himself in that same camp. He supports the measure and will vote for it, but also is finding it hard to press the case for it. The city is hurting, but people are hurting, too, and even supporters are deeply conflicted about asking them to give more.
“It’s our understanding that the people are taxed enough in many ways, emotionally and financially. That makes it hard for us to get excited about it,” Sawyer said.