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Analyzing voter support for California’s local option sales taxes for transportation

Abstract

Local and regional governments in the U.S. rely increasingly on voter-approved local option sales taxes (LOSTs) to fund transportation capital investments, maintenance, and operations. LOSTs typically present voters with lists of local transportation projects and programs to be funded by a ¼ to 1 percent sales tax increase. Most research on LOSTs are case studies, which make generalizations about LOSTs difficult. We conducted a comprehensive, multi-jurisdictional analysis of LOST measures in California, the U.S. state with the greatest number of LOST measures. We examined 76 LOST measures put to voters between 1976 and 2016 to assess factors associated with voter support. LOSTs in California are enacted by counties, which we examined in addition to smaller intra-county geographies using both regression models and case studies. We tested several explanatory variables for association with voter support including macroeconomic and political context, planned measure expenditures, voter characteristics, and spatial distribution of proposed projects. We found that funding dedicated to public transit and returned to local jurisdictions predicts support at the county level, and that LOSTs that create new taxes—as opposed to extending or renewing existing taxes—are less popular with voters, all else equal. Our analyses of sub-county geographies revealed that political party affiliation is the strongest predictor of local voter support for LOSTs and that voters living adjacent to funded projects tended to be more supportive of LOSTs.

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Notes

  1. In 1995, the California Supreme Court ruled in Santa Clara County Local Transportation Authority v. Guardino that LOSTs are a “special” purpose tax under Proposition 62, and therefore require approval by a two-thirds supermajority of voters (1995). Prior to this decision, LOSTs passed with a simple majority of votes.

  2. Limited availability of historical voting data precluded our ability to capture the temporal range of California LOSTs, and limit the local analysis to LOSTs placed on the ballot in the past 20 years.

  3. Measure B only goes into effect if the BART rail expansion funded by Measure A is completed.

  4. This is the minimum that would be spent on alternative transport; cities can fund additional transit and active transportation programs with local return funds at their discretion.

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Acknowledgements

The authors thank many parties who made this project possible. We thank the UC Berkeley Statewide Database staff who provided guidance on voting data and precincts, as well as all county staff who provided voting data and records for sales tax measures. We also thank Maxwell Albrecht, Madeline Brozen, and John Gahbauer at the UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies for their assistance with this research.

Funding

This work was supported by the University of California Center of Economic Competitiveness in Transportation, funded under the federal University Transportation Centers program.

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Correspondence to Anne Brown.

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Brown, A., Lederman, J., Taylor, B.D. et al. Analyzing voter support for California’s local option sales taxes for transportation. Transportation 48, 2103–2125 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11116-020-10123-x

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s11116-020-10123-x

Keywords

  • Local option sales taxes
  • LOST
  • Transportation finance
  • Voter support