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Keys to Successful Local Sales Tax Measures: Competent Leadership, Community Engagement and Experienced Advice

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Jared Boigon is a partner in TBWB Strategies, a strategy and communications consulting firm specializing in public finance ballot measures supporting programs, services and facilities. He can be reached at jboigon@tbwb.com.


Asking voters to approve a local sales tax increase can present challenges for city officials. Voters are naturally skeptical about revenue proposals, and city officials are often unsure about how to explain their city’s revenue needs to local voters in ways that resonate — however, it’s possible to overcome these challenges. Most voters want government to work effectively, and they generally have more faith in local government than in state or federal agencies. And voters have a solid track record of supporting local tax measures in California; between 2001 and 2016, voters approved nearly 75 percent of general taxes for cities.

The keys to obtaining voter approval of a local sales tax measure include:

  • Demonstrating the effective job your city is doing, despite challenges, with the revenues you have; 
  • Engaging community members early in the discussion; and 
  • Establishing a team of advisors experienced in local ballot measures. 

Tip 1. Demonstrate competent leadership. It may seem counterintuitive, but most voters don’t need to be threatened with impending disaster such as lost city services or other bad outcomes. Instead, they respond best to competent leadership. Show your efforts to achieve responsible budgeting, including pension reform and successful efforts to maintain services, despite unreliable support from state government.

Cities seeking revenue should reward voters’ natural civic instincts by showing themselves to be good stewards of existing funds. In most cases, voters are more inclined to reward sound decisionmaking than they are to “bail out” local agencies that present themselves as struggling to survive outside factors.

Tip 2. Engage community members. Take time to engage community members in a deeper discussion of your city's needs and challenges, through a budget advisory committee or blue-ribbon task force. Demonstrate your city’s commitment to transparency and patience with tough questions.

You will never be able to engage every voter. But you may be able to inspire one or two dozen committed citizens — who are interested in solving problems and supporting their community — to become involved.

Many cities have used this approach to successfully embrace skeptics — and even turn critics into advocates for additional local funding. Over time, these community members can become some of your best allies and defenders.

Tip 3. Retain experienced advisors. To succeed with a local tax measure, it’s just not possible to move voters to where you are in terms of complex understanding of your city's budget and funding needs. Voters have busy lives, and your local tax measure will get only a tiny slice of whatever attention they are willing to devote to politics and local affairs.  When communicating, you have to meet them where they are.

Start by contracting for a scientific opinion survey conducted by a reputable polling firm, one with experience and a solid track record of talking to local voters about taxes. The poll will tell you what services and programs voters already prioritize and perceive as needing more funding. In most cases, voters’ existing perceptions will match up with some of your city’s high-priority needs, like public safety or street and road repairs. 

Frame your need in terms supported by your poll, using language that voters can easily understand. A political consulting firm can help you use the poll to translate your budget needs and communicate effectively with the average voter and general public. It is also helpful to include robust transparency and accountability measures, such as an extra layer of local citizen oversight.


Learn More at the Annual Conference

Want to learn more about strategies for winning local revenue measures? Attend the session “How to Overcome Obstacles to Passing Your Sales Tax Measure” at the League of California Cities 2018 Annual Conference & Expo. Jared Boigon will join a panel of city officials to share their experiences, insights and advice.

The session will be held Wednesday, Sept. 12, from 3:45–5:00 p.m. See the conference program or app for location details.

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