Steinberg spending leftover money from mayor’s race to push transportation tax

Darrell Steinberg set new spending record in Sacramento mayoral race

Steinberg spent $1.6 million on his successful campaign. Councilwoman Ashby spent just over $400,000.
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Steinberg spent $1.6 million on his successful campaign. Councilwoman Ashby spent just over $400,000.

Mayor-elect Darrell Steinberg is taking his money to the streets.

He says he will loan $200,000 in leftover campaign funds to support Measure B, the November ballot measure that would raise the sales tax in Sacramento County by a half-cent for 30 years to fund road repairs and transit projects.

Steinberg’s all-in push with his money and clout has netted the Measure B campaign nearly $1 million in contribution commitments in the past week from a quickly built coalition of labor, business and civic groups, according to political consultant David Townsend, whom Steinberg asked to manage the campaign.

With the election near, the campaign had been struggling to land backers and their checkbooks, putting what many see as a critical funding source for transportation improvements at risk of failing at the ballot box.

Supporters of Measure B now include high-profile and deep-pocketed groups including Region Builders, the State Building & Construction Trades Council of California and the Greater Sacramento Area Economic Council.

“We saw the campaign just not living up to what it was going to need to be to be successful, and when the mayor-elect stepped in ... we felt like it was time to engage,” said Region Builders CEO Joshua Woods. Recently, after speaking with Steinberg, his organization pledged to raise $100,000 for Measure B.

Townsend said the decision by the former state Senate leader to put his own campaign money into the effort galvanized others to give.

“All the sudden, everybody is saying, ‘OK, you’re in, we’re in,’” Townsend said.

Steinberg’s move on Measure B also gives him the chance to practice the big-fish leadership he’s been preaching, and to show how his leftover campaign war chest will be leveraged for political power beyond City Hall.

Measure B requires a two-thirds margin at the polls to pass – a difficult hurdle for any ballot measure to attain. Local governments in Sacramento County are relying on the stream of money it would generate to pay for a long list of road and transit maintenance needs as well as new projects, including extending light rail to Sacramento International Airport and building a long-anticipated expressway through eastern Sacramento County from Elk Grove to Highway 50.

Some of the money would go to widening the Capital City Freeway over the American River – one of the region’s worst traffic bottlenecks.

“Even though I’m not yet in office, I feel that it is very important that I set an early tone and expectation about about how I intend to lead,” Steinberg said in an interview last week. “I am going to get involved in any and all issues that are of significance to the community ... I’m asking everybody to step up and step up big here.”

Sacramento County Supervisor Susan Peters said it’s “unusual to have a contribution that size from an elected official, but I think it shows that’s how Mayor-elect Steinberg plans to spend his money … We welcome it.”

Steinberg said that the $3.6 billion in revenue expected from Measure B is vital to economic development both for the city and region, and also plays into livability and environmental goals for the growing downtown area – where popularizing public transportation has become a key objective.

City Councilman Steve Hansen, a board member of the Sacramento Transportation Authority, which manages sales tax money for transportation projects in the county, said passage of the measure is “essential” to maintaining local roads and transit in the face of state and federal funding cuts. Hansen said the measure was “carefully crafted” to ensure that maintenance projects are completed before any new projects start, but added that it’s hard to get voters to pay attention to transportation issues.

The measure was drafted early this year by the Sacramento Transportation Authority, which includes representatives from the city and county as well as other local governments. The county Board of Supervisors placed it on the Nov. 8 ballot on a unanimous 5-0 vote in June.

If Measure B passes, 70 percent of revenue would go to road projects such as repaving streets and filling potholes. Others would include new interchanges, widening roads, and bike and pedestrian improvements.

Thirty percent of Measure B revenue would go to public transit, including Sacramento Regional Transit, which operates buses and light-rail trains.

RT is required under the plan to spend 75 percent of its tax allocation in the first five years on basic operations like improving safety and buying new buses.

The Sacramento County sales tax rate is now 8 percent, while the city of Sacramento’s rate is 8.5 percent. An existing statewide quarter-cent sales tax is scheduled to expire Dec. 31, so Measure B’s passage would push the Sacramento County rate to 8.25 percent and the city of Sacramento’s to 8.75 percent in April.

While Steinberg’s planned cash infusion has kickstarted the Measure B campaign, he plans on getting the money back. His campaign fund is making a loan to the Yes on Measure B Committee to Repair Our Roads and Relieve Traffic.

Steinberg’s contribution comes from a pot of about $700,000 left over from his run for mayor, Steinberg said. He plans on fundraising to pay the campaign fund back for its contribution to Measure B.

Steinberg was criticized during the mayoral race for transferring $1.4 million from a statewide committee he established earlier for a potential lieutenant governor run into his Steinberg for Mayor 2016 fund.

The ability to tap – and potentially replenish – his mayoral campaign account to push his personal policy priorities at the ballot box is a powerful tool for a mayor, allowing Steinberg to influence local elections without relying on traditional money sources like unions and business interests.

Steinberg also used his influence to convince Townsend’s firm to take on the campaign for Measure B with only a short time left to send mail to voters. Townsend worked on the successful 2004 campaign for Measure A, which renewed an existing half-cent sales tax for 30 years, also to pay for transportation projects. His firm has also successfully campaigned for dozens of transit taxes around the state, as well as the high-speed rail bonds.

Townsend said he normally would spend about a year on a campaign. This one will have to be done in less than two months.

“There’s no way I would have done it but for Darrell,” Townsend said.

The campaign will target outlying and suburban areas with road-repair messages and focus on transit for the urban core. It will also highlight the measure’s “tough oversight to make sure the money is spent where it is supposed to be sent,” Townsend said.

Anita Chabria: 916-321-1049, @chabriaa