Virtually everyone wants to continue funding libraries. So, how could Measure X possibly fail?
For Gillian Parrillo, the last two months have been eye-opening.
The former software executive, like several other members of her monthly women’s book club, volunteered to help run the campaign for Measure X, the ballot initiative to renew the public-library tax. Parrillo agreed to be the campaign’s fund-raiser and blithely went to where the money is: Sacramento’s corporate community.
“I come from the business community and thought I could just call big businesses and ask for money, and they’d tell me to come by and pick up the check,” she said, laughing. “I thought it would be easy.”
The reality has been somewhat different. Although her corporate contacts have been sympathetic, she said, nearly all of them declined to donate. “Everyone says, ‘Oh, that’s so great. We love libraries. We think they’re very important.’ But don’t ask them to spend money on them,” she said. “They tell me they can’t get involved in political issues, that it’s a very sensitive area. And I’m thinking: ‘What’s political? We’re talking about the library!’”
With the election two weeks away, how many contributions has she gotten from Sacramento companies? “Very few,” Parrillo said. “Almost none, I would say. A couple thousand maybe. Nearly all of our money has come from the Sacramento Public Library Foundation, the Friends of the Library and people who have donated in the past. Basically, the people who always help the library.”
Campaign Chairwoman Margaret Teichert, another book-club member, thinks donors assume the library initiative will be “a slam-dunk, and there are so many other close issues on the ballot this year they feel passionate about, that they’re spending their money on those.”
Although there is no formal opposition to Measure X, and city voters historically have supported the library at the polls, the initiative’s passage is far from a slam-dunk. The last time the library went to the voters for money, in 1996, they approved by a 62-percent margin. But on that same ballot that year, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association had placed Proposition 218, which ensured that it would be the last time a library could raise funds by convincing a simple majority of the voters it was a good idea. Proposition 218 changed the law so that from then on, a supermajority—66.6 percent—would be required for new library taxes, which, in the political world, is a daunting task. Since 2001, nine ballot measures requiring two-thirds votes have appeared on county ballots, most of them dealing with school bonds. Five passed, and four failed.
Being a librarian, Sacramento Public Library Director Anne Marie Gold looked up the statistics on how often voters approve library taxes. When it takes 51 percent to win, the taxes nearly always pass. At 66.6 percent, Gold said, “the numbers almost completely reverse themselves. It’s sickly fascinating.” (Gold also belongs to the book club.)
An irony is that Measure X isn’t a new tax. It’s a 10-year continuation of the 1996 tax increase, which is set to expire in 2006. Instead of being called an assessment, it will be a parcel tax, but the amount of money it costs city property owners will be the same, roughly $26.50 a year for homeowners. That money, about $3.7 million a year, is used to fund branch libraries, allowing them to purchase new materials and hire enough staff to have somewhat normal business hours.
If approved, the new parcel tax won’t go into effect until after the old tax expires. Because it makes up roughly 30 percent of the budget for branch libraries, if Measure X fails, the money won’t be easily replaced. Probable consequences are a shortening of library hours, fewer branch librarians, the elimination of some children’s programs, and cutbacks on purchases of new materials. Still, if the measure loses this time around, there will be other chances before the tax expires for the library to try again. Library officials chose to put the issue on the ballot during this year’s presidential campaign because such elections tend to bring out a wider and less conservative array of voters. Some city officials initially opposed putting the library issue on the ballot this election, fearing it would drain support from Measure A, the transportation sales-tax extension.
Polling that the library conducted in January shows the library tax losing—if 55-percent approval ratings can be considered losing—when voters believe they are putting a new tax on themselves. But when told it’s a tax they are already paying, the yes vote shoots up to 80 percent. (The poll also asked likely voters what they thought of spending money on a new arena. Of all the potential uses the pollsters suggested for voters’ tax money, funding an arena was the least popular idea, with only 13-percent support. Providing police and fire protection was their first priority.)
Lacking big money to get the message out, the library campaign has been using volunteers to pass out fliers at public markets and library openings, and selling Measure X T-shirts and tote bags on its Web site, www.excellentlibraries.info. The $100,000 campaign fund goal the book-club members set for themselves is still a distant target.
For the women in the book club, who have never before run an election campaign, it’s been a learning experience and another topic for discussion at their meetings.
“We usually don’t talk much about the books,” Parrillo said.