Steve Bennett is smart. But is he wise?
It will take Solomon-like wisdom for this proponent of slow growth and open space to nurse to maturity two demanding political babies for which he is responsible as chairman of both the Ventura County Board of Supervisors and county Transportation Commission.
Should the supervisors and transportation commissioners ask Ventura County voters to approve two sales tax increases in November -- one for road improvements and one to preserve open space? Would it be wiser to merge those two requests into a single measure? Or should one of the measures be held for another, less-crowded election in better economic times?
For now, Bennett is suggesting that a hybrid measure splitting a new 1/2-cent sales tax between transportation and open space may be the way to go.
That position could change if a new poll finds that voters are confused, or irritated, by this merger of different goals. But if the poll shows solid voter support, the hybrid should be pursued, Bennett said, because it weds natural rivals -- environmentalists and the building industry -- to the same cause.
Environmentalists who generally see freeway improvements as invitations to urban sprawl, may support a combo measure because of its open space provisions, he said. And business interests that might otherwise reject open space preservation, may back the hybrid measure because long-delayed freeway improvements are the bulk of the package, he said.
"If you have the Sierra Club and the Building Industry Assn. both lobbying for passage of the same measure, that's a tremendous positive," Bennett said.
Early this month, supervisors authorized a voter poll to test the popularity of a hybrid ballot measure that would increase the countywide sales tax from 7.25% to 7.75%. That would raise about $1.44 billion over 30 years, with $1.08 billion for transportation improvements and $360 million to preserve the county's dwindling open space.
The supervisors wanted to look at this option, because political strategists said rival ballot measures, each seeking a sales tax increase, could undercut one another by blurring the focus of voters. A two-thirds super-majority is needed for approval.
As a result, transportation advocates and open space supporters each want the other to wait until the next general election in 2006 to push their ballot measure. But neither is willing to wait, Bennett said.
"If one wins, you're going to have a natural [voter] opposition to the second," he said. "So why not combine those efforts? Of course, whenever you offer a compromise, it's a great way to get shot from both sides at the same time."
That is just what is happening now, as Bennett and other supervisors try to decide how to respond to transportation advocates who want a new 1/2-cent sales tax solely for transit projects, and to open space advocates who want a 1/8-cent sales tax to buy land and development rights on choice properties around the county.
The supervisors cannot place the 1/8-cent open space measure on the ballot by itself, because state law requires special legislation to put the small levy to voters. But they could place a separate 1/4-cent or 1/2-cent tax on the November ballot without approval of the Legislature, or piggyback the 1/8-cent tax onto a transportation tax. Yet, piggybacking would take concurrence of the independent Transportation Commission, another difficult step.
Right now, the Board of Supervisors appears split on what to do. Bennett and Supervisor Linda Parks like the hybrid measure. "I'm not going to support the transportation measure without open space on the ballot, either as a combined measure or a separate one," Parks said.
Supervisors John Flynn and Judy Mikels said the hybrid would turn off voters.
"I think that could be confusing," Flynn said. "The open space plan really doesn't relate to transportation."
Mikels said the state and county financial crisis should force officials to focus on necessities, such as freeway improvements.
"All these fun little things are fine in good times, but we need to get serious about the family budget," she said. "Putting these [measures] together could make us look foolish. I think the majority of voters would think open space is frivolous given the crisis situation."
Supervisor Kathy Long is on the fence. "The top priority of the public would be transportation, because they struggle daily with congestion and gridlock," she said. "But could the hybrid be a way to get a win-win for transportation and open space? I think it could."
Planning expert and Ventura City Councilman Bill Fulton said he wouldn't count on any type of local tax passing in November. "It's an iffy environment to try to pass a sales tax increase," he said. "Getting two-thirds [of the votes] would be a real trick."
In general, tax measures have a better chance of passing when voters know precisely how the money would be spent, Fulton said.
The proposed transportation tax plan includes those specifics, he said.