Ballot recommendations: Oakland/Alameda County, June 2018

Here are my recommendations on the ballot measures this June 5 that people in Oakland and Alameda County will be voting on – including the Bay Area-wide Regional Measure 3. Please vote, and find the official voter guide here.

A summary of my local and statewide recommendations (which were in the last post):

Measure number/description
Jurisdiction
Utilitarian recommendation
Anticlutter recommendation
Measure A: Childcare/Early Ed Sales Tax
Alameda County
Yes
Yes
Measure D: Library Parcel Tax
Oakland
Yes
Yes
Regional Measure 3: Transportation Infrastructure Bridges Toll
Bay Area
Yes
Yes
Prop 68: Bond for Water, Parks, Environment
State
Yes
Yes
Prop 69: Gas Tax Lockbox
State
No
No
Prop 70: Cap-and-Trade Midpoint Redo
State
No
No
Prop 71: Preventing Headaches with Effective Date of Ballot Measures
State
Yes
Yes
Prop 72: Tax Break for Rainwater Capture / Storage
State
Yes
No

Thank you for reading.

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Measure A, Alameda County: Childcare/Early Ed Sales Tax

Childcare is a basic need for people to have the freedom to participate in the workforce and earn their own living if possible – as fundamental a need as health care. But, with lagging average incomes and rising cost of living, the cost and availability of childcare is completely out of keeping with the level of need for it. $2,000 per month per child is about the norm in my part of the East Bay – it’s tantamount to paying rent on another apartment. Many couples find it works out better in the short term for one of them to stay home; but that harms them in other ways, such as by cutting into their career. A situation where one parent is kept out of the labor force can perpetuate abusive relationships; alternatively, being highly dependent on any given job makes employer exploitation easier.

I tried to put some hard numbers on this. According to the American Community Survey, Alameda County has about 59,000 children ages 0-2. Of those, 8,000 live in households under the federal poverty level – that means, for example, a household of three living on less than $21,000 per year. Of course, that is a restrictive idea of of poverty given the local cost of living; it represents barely even subsistence. If we expand our range a bit, to look at households under 200% of the poverty line, that shows 17,000 babies and toddlers living in poverty or near-poverty households. And the vast majority of these kids are in households with working adults.

I don’t have statistics on the actual childcare situation of these kids, but it’s a mathematical certainty that market-rate childcare is out of reach for their families. Relatives, friends, and neighbors can take up some of the slack, but many lack that help; expecting anyone to do so full-time for free is unfair to them; and coordinating a dozen well-wishers is not viable or reliable. Subsidized programs exist, but with long waitlists.

Preschool and kindergarten have more subsidies applicable available and are not as expensive as childcare, but despite their demonstrated benefit, we still have not closed the gap. There are 60,000 children ages 3-5 in Alameda County. Of those, 19,000 or 31% are not enrolled in any nursery school or preschool; of those, 41% are in poverty or near-poverty, compared to 32% of all kids of this age. (Also, 42% are Hispanic compared to 35% of all kids.)

Some people I’ve called on this measure say to the affordability crisis, “shouldn’t they have thought about that when they had kids?” That kind of callousness may help them cope personally, but our society needs to let people have and raise children whatever their situation, and that is a basic value, not an economic finding.

It would be extremely cheap, compared to other social programs, for the federal government to guarantee childcare and early education: it would cost perhaps another $16 billion a year, on top of the $26 billion we already spend. But with the federal government in its current state, we in California need to help ourselves for the time being.

Measure A raises the sales tax countywide by another one-half cent, raising $140 million annually for 30 years. So in Oakland the sales tax would go from its current 9.25% to 9.75%. The elected Board of Supervisors is mandated to use the money to ensure it goes to childcare and early education, with a citizen oversight committee. This would add some thousands of subsidized childcare slots, going a long way toward closing the gap.

Measure A also addresses childcare and early education as a worker’s rights issue. Despite the importance we place on children, we implicitly place low value on those who oversee them: wages are low, and exploitation is frequent. So the measure also empowers the county to target $15/hour as the minimum wage for all childcare providers and early educators (currently it is about $13 in some cities but $11 in most), and to improve the quality of services provided.

As I have said in past guides, I reluctantly accept ballot-box budgeting when it is part of a measure that simultaneously raises significant revenue for key priorities, and this is just one such measure.

And to repeat myself once more, while the sales tax is somewhat regressive, the benefits this measure provides are highly progressive, targeting people in the most need.

Utilitarian recommendation: Yes
Anticlutter recommendation: Yes

Measure D, Oakland: Library Parcel Tax

This is another measure to keep and to some extent enhance local services. It would assess another $75 per year per single-family house (no matter the value), $51 per apartment unit, and similar amounts on commercial property, with the money going entirely to expanded library services. This is on top of an existing library parcel tax, Measure Q, that expires in 2024, so if I read it correctly, there would be six years of $150/year, then back down to $75 until 2038.

While I wish we didn’t have to spend time thinking about piecemeal measures like this, these two things are both true: (a) libraries are vital public infrastructure and (b) the city government has priorities it understandably assigns more priority, like police, fire, and public works. In the last recession, library services were cut to the bone, but would have gone much lower if not for Measure Q. Since then, its budget has only received minimal increases: the main library on 14th Street closes at 5:30 five days a week. Measure D should help restore the libraries’ health as we get back to a saner tax structure statewide, or, depending how things go, possibly keep them from being a casualty in the next recession.

Parcel taxes are a strange, semi-regressive collection mechanism, but my understanding is cities are limited in the types of taxes they can assess. It is difficult (impossible?) to make it a per valorem property tax – scaling up with property value – unless the measure is to finance bonds. Since the purpose in this case is operations, not infrastructure, bonds would be inappropriate. And there are exemptions on this tax for low-income homeowners.

Utilitarian recommendation: Yes
Anticlutter recommendation: Yes

Regional Measure 3: Transportation Infrastructure Bridges Toll 

Vital transportation infrastructure around the Bay Area, both public transit and roads, continue to suffer from chronic underfunding and need urgent investment. RM3 is another piece in this puzzle, but uses bridge tolls to collect some of the revenue, as opposed to a new tax.

Ideally, the federal government would be kicking in the majority of this funding – backed by a combination of gas taxes and income taxes. Right now, we’re in “help ourselves” territory.

RM3 would increase tolls in all the Bay Area bridges by $1 in 2019, another $1 in 2022, and a further $1 in 2025. This means the Bay Bridge would go from its current $6 (rush-hour price) to $7 and eventually $9. The Carquinez, Dumbarton, San Mateo-Hayward, Richmond-San Rafael, Antioch, and Benicia-Martinez Bridges would go to $6 and eventually $8. There would be no change to the Golden Gate Bridge, which a different agency runs.

The money raised would come to about $125 million a year for each dollar of toll, so $375 million/year after the last hike. Some would support public transit operations, but most would become payments on a large bond package, letting us spend about $4.5 billion upfront on infrastructure.

According to their plan, about 60% of that $4.5 billion is planned to go to improvements to public transit: more and better BART cars, ferries, buses, transit stations, etc. Most impressively, it would help fund the completion of BART to San Jose, a critical gap at the moment, and on the other end, finally connect Caltrain to BART in downtown San Francisco. The other 40% would go to road projects to improve congestion and reduce bottlenecks, like adding carpool lanes, improving interchanges, and reducing truck traffic.

The projects are worthy. Is the means of raising the money worthy? I have friends who are deeply concerned about the regressivity, the people who will actually have to pay that $3 a day. And they have a point: unlike sales taxes, which are broadly spread across everybody, this impact is concentrated onto a smaller group of people. At the moment, there is no toll relief program for low-income commuters (there hopefully will be, but I can’t be sure). Critics also point out that concentrated wealth like Silicon Valley will benefit as much as commuters, and a better transit measure would reflect that benefit in how it raises money.

I agree the measure could be better crafted – they should have nailed down the low-income assistance beforehand – but think in the end it does much more good than harm. Looking at the data, I see that (a) relatively few low-income people will in fact paying these tolls, (b) many more are helped by expanding and improving public transit, and (c) there are many methods for affected individuals to reduce the tolls’ impact, and these methods tend to be win-win for them, their lives, and the environment.

Looking at the public microdata release from the US Census that allows random people like me to do this kind of analysis, in the 2012-16 period, out of 3.8 million workers in the Bay Area, about 346,000 make the crossings that – if they drive – require these bridges.* Of those, 224,000 use cars, and of those, 27,000 are below 200% of the federal poverty level. So there is a material number of people for whom this amount could be a real bite.

But I think they will be fewer than this 27,000. More expensive bridge tolls are similar to a congestion charge, in that they make people’s use of a scarce resource (the crowded bridge and SF’s crowded streets) more limited, when they need it, as opposed to out of habit. It also incentivizes carpooling via the 50% toll discount. Surprisingly, despite this discount, only 21% of bridge-commuting drivers carpooled in 2012-2016 according to my data, and only 28% of the low-income group did. The price jump could well tip the scales so that many more people figure out carpooling, more consciously limit their bridge crossings, or switch to public transit, blunting the financial impact.

I am not saying that it’s low-income people’s own fault if they choose not to carpool: their experience is not mine, and I know poverty batters people down with daily emergencies and stressors, often leaving little ability to make regular arrangements or advance planning. But still, a good share of those 27,000 low-income car commuters will likely adjust over a few years, and that adjustment could improve their lives in many other ways (cars themselves are expensive and stressful).

The number of low-income people who will benefit from RM3 is far greater. 74,000 low-income workers currently commute by bus, rail, or ferry. There are 213,000 low-income people who don’t have a fixed place of work, and who also don’t have a car – this includes people with disabilities, the unemployed or irregularly employed, students, retirees – and this group has a great and pressing need for public transit. And 420,000 low-income workers drive to work without going over one of these bridges; a large chunk of them may be able to switch to transit due to the RM3 projects, or see less congestion when they do drive.

And in the grand scheme, working toward less driving and more efficient driving is critical to limiting carbon emissions and pointing the way toward a future world with as little global warming damage as possible.

Finally, I want to counter one distributional objection: that San Jose and Santa Clara County are getting transit projects out of proportion to the tolls their residents pay. The fact is, the biggest such projects, BART to San Jose and expansion of Diridon Station, also help residents of other counties who commute there. I think the resource allocation properly reflects full-region thinking, knitting everyone closer together. We can and should also increase taxes on the higher-income to continue to fill the gap, but alongside, not instead of, a toll increase.

Utilitarian recommendation: Yes
Anticlutter recommendation: Yes

* I defined bridge crossings as the following combinations of residence county / workplace county, in either direction:
Bay Bridge: Alameda, Contra Costa, San Joaquin, and Solano / San Francisco
San Mateo or Dumbarton Bridge: Alameda, Contra Costa, San Joaquin, and Solano / San Mateo
Richmond/San Rafael Bridge: Marin and Sonoma / Contra Costa, Alameda, and Solano
Carquinez, Benicia-Martinez, or Antioch Bridge: Solano and Napa / Alameda and Contra Costa

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