By a layperson’s account, it might seem early in the game to think about the March primary election, let alone the November general election.
But for people in politics, where timing can make or break what qualifies for the ballot, the window of opportunity is rapidly closing, says Casey Beyer, CEO of Santa Cruz County Chamber of Commerce.
Beyer estimates that voters this year will see a slate of measures on the March primary that touch on all the hot-button issues: housing, education, affordable rents. That’s partly because this year is the presidential primary, an election year that historically predicts high voter turnout.
Still, there are many unknowns: the mood of the electorate in coming months, the state of the economy, those elements that politicians try so hard to nail down to make a sure-ish bet on what measures will win the vote. There’s also the question of if students will turn out to vote in the March primary, as the election will take place when some 19,000 UC Santa Cruz students are on campus.
Santa Cruz is also in the unique position of having just moved to district elections, with three seats up. That might play into which council members push for what kind of measures.
“Politics is a gamble,” Beyer says. “It’s like playing poker, but you’re unsure what you’ve got.”
SANTA CRUZ EYES AFFORDABLE HOUSING BOND
Last Thursday evening, around 30 people gathered at the Santa Cruz Police Department’s community meeting room to discuss an affordable housing measure that voters might see on the March primary ballot.
As Santa Cruz looks ahead at building nearly 4,000 more affordable housing units in the next eight years, the city is looking for ways to generate money to fund affordable housing projects. One way that’s being considered is through a bond measure on the March primary.
Over three community workshops, city officials and residents will help create ballot language for the measure.
“The question I always have when you do community meetings for measures is, is it the same people in the room who will be affected by a measure?” Beyer says. “And is it a broad enough spectrum of community to say, ‘Hey, this is what the community wants?’”
It’s a point that Diana Alfaro, Project Manager at MidPen Housing, also raised during the community meeting.
“I’m looking around the room, and I can’t help but notice the demographics of the room,” Afaro said to a room of mostly middle-aged, white attendees.
Ultimately, the city plans to pass the measure over to the community to be a citizen-sponsored measure, meaning the measure would only need 50% plus one vote to pass. To qualify for the March election, the petition must collect around 5,000 signatures by October.
Currently, polling is being conducted on residents across the city to gauge what type of language will resonate with voters and what kind of appetite voters have for a potential bond or tax that raises money for affordable housing.
“After polling, a determination will need to be made: Is there enough support to pass a bond measure, or will it be a sales tax measure or some revenue stream?” Beyer says.
Again, he says, polling is a tricky business because what people are thinking in June of this year can shift significantly over the next nine months.
There might be another factor that the city is using to inform its decision: Measure H, the county’s 2018 attempt at a housing bond. The measure failed to garner the two-thirds vote necessary to pass. But it was popular with voters in Santa Cruz, where the measure had an approval rate of 70% according to Beyer.
As for the county, Beyer says all eyes will be on what local city measures are being considered for the March primary before the county makes any significant moves to put a measure on the primary or general ballot.
“The real issue in the county is revenue streams,” Beyer says. “The county is always looking for the means to improve our roads and infrastructure. I think that the county is biding their time because when the county puts a measure on the ballot, they have to weigh in on whether or not a measure in Santa Cruz or any other city will impact anything that they do. There are all these moving parts, and no one has a clear view.”
PVUSD CONSIDERS BOND MEASURE
Just over ten years ago, Pajaro Valley Unified School District voters approved Measure L. Over the intervening years, this $150 million bond funded hundreds of construction, maintenance and modernization projects at every school site and building.
This included Pajaro Valley High School’s long-awaited athletic field and a new parking lot at Bradley Elementary.
But the district still has more than $300 million in projects districtwide, says PVUSD Chief Business Officer Clint Rucker.
On May 10, the district’s Board of Trustees took the first step toward bringing a new general obligation bond to voters with a report by financial advisor Dale Scott, who says the best chance of success will come in the next major election.
“It is without any doubt that the greatest probability of success for a general obligation bond occurs in a presidential election,” he says. “So, I strongly recommend that if you go down this road, you look towards this 2024 date.”
Later in the meeting, however, the trustees approved a $15,000 contract with Scott to gauge public interest in supporting a bond.
If the district decides to move forward with a bond, it will pay an additional $75,000 to help it move forward, which would be paid for with bond money.
General obligation bonds are used to raise money for high-value projects that cannot generate money on their own. They are typically paid back through voter-approved tax increases.
For example, Measure L added about $38 per $100,000 of assessed value to property tax bills.
Rucker says that the limited state funding for school repair projects leaves districts with few options.
“The only way districts really see a big influx of funding for facilities is by going out for a bond,” he says.
The issue would require a two-thirds majority vote from the board—five votes—and a simple majority from the public to pass.
Todd Guild contributed to this story