backroom deals on sales tax

Imagine, if you will, a backroom filled with cigar smoke, burley guys with prominent gun bulges around the edges, the sounds of illegal gambling games coming from the adjacent room, and the clink of bootleg whiskey bottles. Around the table sit power players, working out deals. Someone asks about the public, and one of the burley guys says “We took care of them”.

This is the picture I have of the just-released proposed agreement on the transportation sales tax measure being developed. Read the agreement: Mitigation Agreement, and the SACOG 2022-06-16 Agenda Item 13 Staff Report that introduces it. It is important to realize that this agreement was developed by Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, SACOG Executive Director James Corless, and the proponents of the measure (called ‘The Campaign’ in the agreement). The proponents are named A Committee for a Better Sacramento, but their website tell the story: two mega-developers of greenfield (agricultural) lands, Cordova Hills Development Corporation and Angelo T. Tsakopoulos and Affiliated Entities, and the California Alliance for Jobs, an organization that supports large infrastructure projects on behalf of construction contractors (it is the contractors, not the workers who are represented). The proponents want the taxpayers to build them a freeway and interchanges to increase the value of their greenfield developments. The public was not involved. Actually, the SACOG Board of Directors was not really involved.

Before going into what is wrong with the agreement, a review of what happened at the last SACOG Board Meeting on May 19. Almost every representative from Sacramento county and cities badmouthed the SACOG study that revealed that the Capital Southeast Connector would likely cause the region to not meet its 19% greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction target, and therefore likely lose a significant amount of state and federal funding for transportation and housing. Several of them even questioned the honesty of the staff that wrote the study. It was a pretty horrible display of politicians saying they know more than professional staff. On the other hand, almost every representative of counties and cities in the region that are not in Sacramento County expressed concern about losing transportation and housing funding if the measure passes. James Corless listened to this, and decided an agreement that helps some select developers and some select projects, while harming the region, is the way to go.

So, the agreement. What is wrong with it?

  1. The agreement accepts that project proponents (cities and the counties, not measure proponents) can make a determination about whether their project meets air quality requirements. It encourages both projects and the overall program to meet SACOG requirements and inclusion in the MTP/SCS, but accepts that they may not. This will establish a precedent that will be used by project hosts and tax measure proponents from now on, to claim they don’t need to follow SACOG.
  2. The agreement proposes that SACOG undertake a study of the proposed measure to determine GHG/VMT impacts. This will be expensive, and the funds will come out of the Sacramento Transportation Authority (SacTA) Measure A funds, meaning less money for other projects. This study would probably be a good idea, but it should have been done before the measure was written, not after. If this measure fails, as it should, advocates should demand that climate impact studies be done before the Transportation Expenditure Plan is completed, not after.
  3. The agreement also proposes a third party study, because, basically, the measure proponents don’t trust SACOG to kowtow to the party line. Who will this third party be? The agreement doesn’t say. Handpicked by the proponents? Handpicked by SacTA (current SacTA Executive Director Kevin Bewsey was formerly the Principal Civil Engineer for Sacramento County, hardly an unbiased role)? The agreement says, if the two studies don’t agree, we’ll talk about it. Hmm. More smokey back rooms.
  4. The agreement depends upon an ‘extra’ $510M in additional sales tax revenue for mitigation. What if sales tax remains flat, or decreases? What if construction and management cost go up at the same rate as the sales tax receipts, thereby eating up the excess? No mitigation, then? That is the implication.
  5. The agreement relies on the good will of the transportation agencies in the county (pretty please) to spend their extra sales tax revenue on mitigation: “…recipient agencies can pledge that the use of these additional funds be used first for GHG Mitigation.” Notice it doesn’t say must or will, just can. Citrus Heights, for example, which is much more likely to propose multi-modal transportation projects than other entities, will be asked to sacrifice sales tax revenue to mitigate the Connector and other capacity expansion projects, even though they won’t benefit from those. The same for the City of Sacramento, which makes it doubly disappointing to me that Mayor Steinberg is a party to this agreement.
  6. The agreement implies that the GHG/VMT generating projects can be mitigated sometime later: “Therein, there should be no net increase to regional GHG emissions after mitigation measures are complete.” It doesn’t say the mitigation needs to happen first, or at the same time as the project, just sometime within the 40 years. Ouch!
  7. An MOU is just a statement of intent, laying out what each party intends to do. It is not a contract, and is not legally binding. If one of the parties is unhappy with what the other parties have done, or not done, they can bring a civil suit, but they may not allege breach of contract, because it is not a contract.
  8. The agenda staff report says it is likely that the SACOG Blueprint will have to be delayed in order for staff to be shifted to the study. This is SACOG’s flagship product. Why in the world would it be delayed just to meet the needs of the transportation sales tax measure proponents? This is crazy.
  9. $100M out of City of Sacramento’s share of sales tax revenues would be added for the Mobility Center. Why? What does this have to do with the Capital Southeast Connector and other roadway capacity expansion projects? Are we going to mitigate all the bad things in the measure with a small investment in electric vehicles?

    The measure proponents are bullying SACOG. This was their intention, else why would they have removed the GHG/VMT climate protection language that was in the deferred 2020 measure? It is as though the school bully said “hand over your lunch money” and the victim counter-proposes an agreement to only give half of the lunch money, and agrees not to report the bully to the Principal (the Principal, in this case, being the public).

Please take a look at the SACOG Board page to see who your representatives are, and contact them about this agreement.

The SACOG Board Meeting is this Thursday, June 16, starting at 9:30AM, and this is agenda item 13. You can view the meeting at https://us06web.zoom.us/j/82132538239. You can comment via Zoom, or by email or online or phone, or even in person. This is apparently the first in-person meeting of the board. See the agenda for details.

For more on the measure, see Measure 2022 posts. The use of this category is not meant to confuse. A lot of people are referring to this as Measure A, but the measure letters are assigned by county elections after they have qualified, so this is in no sense Measure A at this time.