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County's plea to lawmakers gets cool reception in Sacramento

Supporters of a local sales tax increase that would raise millions to pay for transportation projects across Merced County want to lower the percentage of votes needed to pass such a tax — but their plans aren’t getting a warm reception in Sacramento.

Merced County leaders have tried and failed three times in the past five years to pass a ballot measure that would increase the sales tax to pay for road projects. Each time, the measure fell short of the 66.7 percent approval needed to pass, though not by much.

Now, as supporters contemplate sending another transportation tax before local voters, they’re trying to lower the percentage of votes needed from two-thirds to a simple majority.

But legislators in Sacramento say that won’t be easy. “They’ve basically told us it’s not going to happen,” said Merced City Councilman Bill Spriggs. “It was pretty disheartening.”

Spriggs was among about 50 Merced County elected officials, business and community leaders who went to the state capital this week. The yearly trip is a local lobbying effort known as One Voice. It’s organized by the Merced County Association of Governments.

Lowering the approval threshold for transportation tax measures is among One Voice’s top priorities. But at a number of meetings with state legislators and staffers this week, the group found few encouraging words.

Changing the threshold would require amending the State Constitution. That would require voter approval, and leaders in Sacramento say few outside Merced will support the plan.

That’s because many counties across California have already passed their own transportation tax measures at the higher threshold. That means they qualify as so-called “self-help” counties, a designation that’s required to collect a portion of state bond money for transportation projects.

“They’re basically saying, ‘Why should we make it easier for Merced to get a piece of that pie when we’ve already got ours,’” Spriggs said, adding that 85 percent of Californians live in self-help counties.

Atwater City Councilwoman Lesa Rasmussen, who was also part of the One Voice delegation, said that rationale makes sense, even if it’s disappointing. “There’s no motivation for most of the state to agree with (Merced) on this,” Rasmussen said. “They’re protecting their turf ... I wish it was different, but that’s the reality.”

Many counties across the state — even conservative ones — have managed to sell transportation taxes to more than two-thirds of their voters. For that reason, state officials say, counties like Merced aren’t going to find much sympathy for their shortcomings. Still, others agree with One Voice that the threshold needs to be lowered. “Two-thirds is an incredibly high hurdle for any county to reach, especially rural counties like Merced,” said Sarah West, executive director of the Self Help Counties Coalition. “It really does need to be lowered.”

But after this week’s trip to Sacramento, Merced County officials acknowledge that’s unlikely. “We’re just going to have to get the two-thirds,” Spriggs said.

Whether that will ever happen remains to be seen.

Merced County voters most recently rejected a transportation tax measure in November 2006, when Measure G garnered 60.1 percent approval.

Six months earlier, as Measure A, the initiative earned 62.8 percent of the vote. In 2002, as Measure M, 61.7 percent of voters supported the tax.

Measure G faced no organized opposition and won endorsements from Rep. Dennis Cardoza, all three Merced chambers of commerce, the entire County Board of Supervisors and the entire Merced City Council.

If voters had approved it, the half-cent sales tax would have generated $446 million over the next 30 years to help fund projects including widening Highway 99, building a railroad underpass on G Street in Merced, building a Highway 152 bypass around Los Banos and repairing cracked roads countywide.