Creating an Innovative Campaign Strategy to Oppose a Bond Measure: The Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District Measure X Prototype
by Kevin Dayton
California voters approved bond measures for K-12 school and community college districts at a 90% rate in the November 2015 off-year election and June 2016 primary presidential election. This is a record rate of passage for bond measures since 1986.
It’s likely this percentage would be much lower if voters had more information about bond measures and more exposure to how much it costs to borrow money. Professional campaign consultants have honed their strategies to ensure almost guaranteed victory for bond measures. Now there is an innovative effort to restore balance in the public debate.
Campaign Consultants Easily Crush Local Grassroots Opposition
Campaign consulting firms that specialize in local tax measures now have sixteen years of experience seeking 55% approval for educational facility bond measures (a threshold dropped from two-thirds when California voters enacted Proposition 39 in 2000). They know how to take advantage of voters’ poor understanding of bonds and bond measures.
Campaigns never explain how this money is borrowed from investors and must be paid back with interest. In addition, campaign consultants adeptly exploit ambiguities in state law to establish almost insurmountable obstacles to any local grassroots opposition. For example, consultants encourage school districts to use public funds to influence voters through promotional material cleverly portrayed as purely “informational.”
As a result, consultants have become so confident of their formulas for victory that they have managed to nudge California school and college districts into placing 184 local bond measures totaling $25.3 billion on the November 2016 ballot. This breaks the record of 113 bond measures on the November 2014 ballot.
It’s likely that voters in California will approve at least 165 of the 184 bond measures and maintain a 90% passage rate. Most of these bond measures lack organized opposition.
A Innovative Strategy to Restore Balance to the Public Debate on Bond Measures
However, opponents of the $340 million bond measure proposed by the Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District have developed a prototype campaign to bring needed fiscal accountability to the endless flood of bond measures proposed to voters. Developed with the assistance of California Bond Defense Clearinghouse director Richard Michael, this new strategy of focusing on debt balances the emotional appeal of slick boilerplate campaigns featuring smiling children and grateful veterans. “Giving an actual number is something voters can understand,” Michael says. “It’s like saying ‘write a check’ for that number. Whether it’s big or small is relative to the voter’s financial circumstances, but it’s real.”
In mid-October, voting households in the Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District received a personalized mailer with calculations of bond debt for each specific household. The mailer provides the estimated property tax burden the household will be obligated to pay in debt service (principal plus interest) for the college’s 2012 bond measure. In addition, the mailer shows the additional tax burden that would be imposed in debt service for the proposed 2016 bond measure.
The numbers are calculated based on typical interest rates for traditional current interest bonds. The debt amounts will be higher if interest rates go up or if the district sells capital appreciation bonds, but the campaign chose to be cautiously low with its estimates.
By using this individualized tax calculator, voters consider the bond measure from a different perspective. In addition to thinking about the nice things that the college will build, voters can also consider how building these nice things with borrowed money will impose additional measurable long-term debt on property owners. The tax calculator restores a proper balance between what will be built and how it will be funded.
Responding to Different Needs and Concerns of Different Kinds of Voters
Voters and any other interested party can also go to the No on X – East County website and use the same tax calculator for any address within the Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District. And while on the website, voters can read information that appeals to a diverse range of voters.
A poll of Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District voters was commissioned and paid for by San Diego County construction unions and privately given to key college administrators and board members in the summer of 2016. The public was alerted to the poll’s existence when the college chancellor mentioned it during a board meeting.
A public records request ultimately weened the poll results out of the administrative office and into the hands of opponents. It provided a comprehensive assessment of voters and their needs and concerns. Those needs and concerns are addressed on the website and in three mailers (also posted on the website).
What Happens If the Prototype Works?
Election results in the Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District will show whether this innovative approach to opposition strategy can overcome the current advantages that result in a 90% victory rate for bond measures. If successful, the model can be propagated for 2018 elections in districts where additional borrowing for facilities construction is unnecessary, foolish, or driven by outside interests rather than legitimate community demand.
See the No on X website: http://www.noonxeastcounty.com
See the Tax Calculator: http://taxbill.noonxeastcounty.com/
See the Household Tax Calculator Individualized Mailer: