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Why California’s Two-Thirds Local Ballot Threshold May Be Worth Keeping

11:19 AM EST on December 6, 2012

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California lost a couple of transit heartbreakers at the ballot box last month.

Measure J in Los Angeles, which would have secured funding for transit projects by extending a local sales tax until 2069, fell short of the required two-thirds majority by less than 1 percentage point. Another closely watched ballot measure was Alameda County's Proposition B1, which would have provided $7.8 billion for road repairs, transit, and biking and walking. The measure failed by just 800 votes, or slightly more than one-tenth of 1 percent.

Since election day, some transit advocates have called for relaxing California's two-thirds rule, which requires a supermajority to pass local tax increases designated for a specific purpose. But Systemic Failure isn't convinced that would be a change for the better:

Bicycle and transit advocates were obviously disappointed that B1 failed. The measure would have increased bike/ped funding in the county, and prevented further cuts to the local bus system. So should they get on board with a lower 55% threshold? I think that may be ill-advised.

The advantage of the 66% threshold is that it ensures all constituencies have a seat at the table. That was not the case in 1986, when only a simple majority was needed. The result was that bike/ped advocates were completely shut out. Transit riders didn’t do so well either. [Above] is a comparison of the simple-majority 1986 and super-majority 2002 measures.

Note that Alameda county surpassed 80% approval. Other urban counties have also been generally successful with local measures, despite the 2/3 requirement.

So what went wrong this time? In the case of Alameda, the county over-reached. Unlike past measures, Proposition B1 had a controversial provision making the tax permanent. Many voters were concerned that once the existing expenditure plan was completed, the county would continue collecting the tax in perpetuity without input from the voters.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Bike Davis reports that cycling advocates in this bastion of bike-friendliness are already strategizing about how they can win the League of American Bicyclists' new "Diamond" standard. And Bike Delaware beautifully captures the absurdity of modern road design if you happen to be walking.

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