The dust has settled on Measure EE, the 16-cent per square foot property tax rushed onto a June 4 ballot by the LAUSD board and its union. Following last week’s election results, politicians, pundits and school boards across the state are pondering EE’s meaning – trying to determine whether the parcel tax’s defeat was a fluke or an indicator of something bigger. You be the judge.
Below find lessons learned from the No on EE campaign:
Support for the January teacher strike didn’t translate to support for the tax. The LAUSD and UTLA attempted to capitalize on the strike’s “momentum” by rushing a massive revenue measure onto a June 4 ballot. The No campaign’s research indicated that we could peel away support from EE, irrespective of where voters stood on the strike. Simply by mentioning that EE was a tax on all property and highlighting that the district should reform first and better control run-away finances before asking for a half-billion in taxpayer dollars annually, we could knock support well below the two-thirds necessary for EE to pass.
LAUSD has an image problem. Voters were evenly split on their favorable-unfavorable views of the district. Typically, school districts have positive favorability scores. Trust (or lack thereof) in the district was also a concern.
The Yes campaign’s frequent errors reinforced trustworthiness issues. Immediately prior to placing EE on the ballot, the school board removed language prohibiting EE tax revenue from going toward retiree pension and healthcare benefits (i.e., no money to the classroom). Later, realizing EE’s text contained vague oversight language, the board attempted to clarify “oversight” by resolution (easily changed by a future majority board vote). The coup-de-grace came when, after district legal counsel indicated that no changes could be made to EE’s text, the superintendent unilaterally rewrote key language about what was taxed and how much property owners would pay. This change resulted in a Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association lawsuit.
Low turnout helped the No campaign. Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez bemoaned that so few voters turned out to support public education (here and here). The LAUSD should have understood how an off-year election would impact the vote before the school board rushed it onto the ballot. The June 4 electorate was older, whiter, more homeowner heavy, more conservative and more concentrated in the San Fernando Valley.
The 12th District City Council election boosted the No campaign. The northwest San Fernando Valley election to replace Councilman Mitch Englander is arguably the city’s most conservative council district. With larger properties, older homeowners and located far from downtown, this district’s voters resoundingly defeated Measure EE by a 43.2% margin (71.6N to 28.4%Y).
Because the No campaign would be outspent, we had to frame the issue early. With a snap election, local politicians applying pressure to dampen business contributions and deep union pockets, the No campaign had to communicate early to a highly targeted sub-group of voters. We served-up messaging that educated and influenced these voters and reached them multiple times through a combination of direct mail (40-plus pieces to small universes) plus effective digital and social media. We ran broadcast and cable television during the campaign’s final weekend.
Measure EE’s defeat highlights that even in tax-friendly Los Angeles, a poorly constructed tax measure with no reform put forward by a school district with a spotty achievement record can be defeated, especially when opposed by a moderately funded and disciplined campaign.
Throughout California, EE’s defeat should be heard, loud and clear, by others contemplating revenue measures. Voter support for public education isn’t a blank check for school districts.
Real reform first coupled with demonstrable success represent essential building blocks. Should that occur, voter support may follow.
Matt Klink, president of LA-based Klink Campaigns, Inc., was the general consultant for the No on Measure EE campaign. Follow him on Twitter @mattklink