Measure E’s billion-dollar question returns to Fresno County

Proponents argue the $1.6 million initiative will address Fresno State’s aging infrastructure, opponents criticize the sales tax as a cash grab

Fresno State signage located on the north west corner of Shaw Ave. and Maple Ave. (Kenny Goodman)
Fresno State signage located on the north west corner of Shaw Ave. and Maple Ave. (Kenny Goodman)
Darren Fraser
Published January 30, 2024  • 
12:30 pm

FRESNO – As Fresno County voters gear up to cast their votes in the polls for the Presidential Primary Election, they’ll be asked once more to determine the fate of Measure E, an initiative meant to fund various programs and facilities at Fresno State.

The proponents of the initiative, which will be on the March 5 ballot, argue it is a long-overdue remedy to fix Fresno State University’s decaying buildings. However, opponents decry it as an ill-disguised money grab by local elites who would benefit from the 25-year, $1.575 billion initiative.

Measure E’s official title is California State University, Fresno Facility and Academic Program Improvement Initiative Measure. If approved, Measure E would establish a countywide 1/4¢ sales tax. The tax would generate approximately $63 million annually or $1.575 billion over the life of the measure.

Proponents, including Fresno Mayor Jerry Dyer, Fresno County Sheriff John Zanoni, Supervisor Sal Quintero and Dora Westerlund of the Fresno Area Hispanic Foundation, say that 2/3 of Fresno State’s facilities are over 50 years old and are in dire need of maintenance. They note the school has $500 million in deferred maintenance projects. These include fixing leaking roofs, replacing fire alarm systems, installing new HVAC units, electrical systems, and plumbing and wells for safe drinking water. Measure E would also fund the removal of hazardous materials on the campus, such as asbestos, lead and mold.

Measure E would finance the construction of a School of Nursing facility. Proponents say the new facility would help the university triple its nursing graduates. The measure would expand the Lyles College of Engineering, modernize agricultural facilities, build an Agricultural Innovation Center and Water institute, build a concert hall and new classrooms. The total for all projects is $1,578,484,163.

According to YesOnMeasureE.com website, the measure would create nearly 27,000 jobs and generate over $5.7 billion in economic activity.

The measure would also create two $50 million endowments to fund scholarships and pay for deferred maintenance and campus program support. The endowments would not be touched during the 25-year life of the initiative. Interest earned from the funds would be transferred annually to fund scholarships and for other campus expenses.

Proponents say 100% of Measure E funds support students, with 85% going towards academic improvements. An impartial analysis by Fresno County Counsel Daniel C. Cederborg notes that up to 1% of the tax would be appropriated annually to Fresno County for staffing and administrative costs.

Assemblymember Jim Patterson, R-Fresno, told GV Wire he supports the measure because it would provide the County independence to fund university projects without having to rely on the state for money.

“When it comes to Fresno State, we are going to cut that tie. We are going to say goodbye to those who don’t care and don’t act,” said Patterson.

This is Measure E’s second shot at passing, as the initiative initially failed to pass in November 2022. Over 52% of Fresno voters opposed the measure. According to election results, voters in Fresno voted in favor of the measure but voters in rural communities largely voted against it. 

A map of voter precincts published by the Fresno County Clerk/Registrar of Voters showed that in addition to rural communities, mountain communities in the county also opposed the measure.

SHIFTS THE TAX BURDEN TO THE WORKING POOR

Fresno businessman Brooke Ashjian said if Measure E did not come with strings attached, he, too, would support it. But that is not the case.

“There is no such thing as a free lunch,” Ashjian wrote in a Sept. 15 editorial published on GV Wire.

Turning Patterson’s argument on its head, Ashjian said that instead of the entire state deferring maintenance and other costs at the aging university, Measure E places the entire financial onus on the residents of Fresno County.

“The measure shifts tax burdens from the State of California directly to our county’s working poor, who are among the most impoverished people in the entire county,” Ashjian wrote.

Ashjian said Measure E would benefit Fresno County’s elite because these individuals would be awarded building and improvement contracts.

Harris Construction owner Richard Spencer supports the measure. He also funded the original Measure E in 2022, which would have created a .2% sales tax. However the contract between Harris Construction and Fresno Unified School District to build Gaston Middle School was not without some speculation. In 2023, the California Supreme Court ruled that lease-leaseback agreements that do not have financing integral to them are not the type of “contract” that can be “validated” under the California Government Code 53511. 

To provide greater transparency and accountability, the measure would establish a 7-member Citizens’ Oversight Committee, the purpose of which would be to ensure that revenue generated by Measure E would be used as specified. Unlike other committees created in accordance with measures, such as Measure B or Measure Z, Citizens’ Oversight Committee members would be compensated, possibly as much as $81,000 per year – and members would set their own salaries.

According to Ashjian, there will be nothing democratic as to how these members are chosen.

“None other than the Fresno elite who stand to directly benefit from the plum Fresno State building and improvement contracts that will follow and those cushy $81,000-a-year board seats their friends will fill on the new oversight board,” Ashjian wrote.

CORRECTION: This story was updated to reflect the California Supreme Court’s ruling that lease-leaseback agreements were in conflict with state code and not necessarily categorized as illegal. Correction made at 10:35 pst on Feb. 2, 2024

Darren Fraser
Reporter