Measure E falls flat in Fresno County once more

Voters once again reject Measure E, a proposed sales tax initiative aimed at funding renovations for Fresno State University

California State University, Fresno signage located on Shaw Ave. and Cedar Ave. (Kenny Goodman)
Darren Fraser
Published March 15, 2024  • 
1:00 pm

FRESNO COUNTY – For the second time in two years, Fresno County voters rejected a sales tax measure that would have generated millions of dollars annually to pay for the approximately $500 million in deferred maintenance projects for Fresno State University buildings and facilities.

Votes cast in the March 5 Presidential Primary will not be officially certified until April 12. Preliminary tallies, however, indicate Measure E, the ¼ cent county sales tax initiative, is solidly on the road to defeat. The measure would have generated $63 million annually in local taxes – and over $1.57 billion over the measure’s 25-year lifespan.

According to the latest results from the Fresno County Clerk/Registrar of Voters office, over 57% of voters voted against the measure. Only slightly more than 28% of the County’s eligible voters turned out for the election.

WHY DID MEASURE E FAIL?

It wasn’t for lack of financial support. According to Brook Ashjian, who spearheaded the effort to defeat the measure, the “Yes on E” campaign reportedly spent millions of dollars on billboards, commercials, etc. More telling than the large amount supporters spent was the paltry amount opponents spent – less than $40,000, according to Ashjian.

Lack of transparency may have also contributed to the measure’s demise. In the runup to the election, supporters published a list of campus projects the measure would fund. These included:

  • $45 million for a 1,200 seat concert hall;
  • $35 million for improvements to the Grosse Industrial Technology facility;
  •  $60 million expansion of the Lyles College of Engineering;
  • $60 million for a new School of Nursing building;
  • $35 million renovation for the John Wright Theater;
  • $40 million for the Ag Innovation Center/Water Institute;
  • $50 million for the Social Sciences/Criminology expansion; and
  • Over $48.7 million for the Farm Laboratory modernization.

But Fresno State President Saul Jimenez-Sandoval told fresnoland that the list was a draft. In a Feb. 28 editorial, Jiselle Cardenas, editor-in-chief of Fresno State’s campus newspaper The Collegian, quoted Kevin Capehart, economics professor: 

“The promotional materials for the Measure E Redux campaign includes a wish list of projects,” said Capehart. “But that list is not binding in any way. Even some of the apparent restrictions on how much can be spent in which ways are not as restrictive as they see, especially if you can call the Save Mart Center or a football stadium an academic building.”

Another criticism leveled at the measure described it as double taxation because it is the state’s responsibility to fund the California State University system, not local taxpayers.

Opponents also took issue with the creation of the 7-member Citizens’ Oversight Committee. According to proponents of the measure, the committee would provide greater transparency and accountability regarding how funding would be spent. But opponents balked at the salaries committee members could receive – possibly as high as $81,000 annually. And these members would have the freedom to set their own salaries.

Critics, like Ashjian, accused the measure’s backers of favoritism. They argued the committee would be packed with handpicked members who would award rich construction contracts to the entities that secured their nominations to the committee.

Tim Orman, a lead consultant for the measure, sounded guardedly optimistic about the results. Orman said he was disappointed but said that after the dust settles, proponents will regroup and consider future options. He also pointed out that low voter turnout in elections favors conservatives, which was the case this time.

“The low turnout means that there’s a much greater concentration of older conservative voters,” Orman told fresnoland. “There’s a certain amount of economic uncertainty in the general public and I think that had an impact as well.”

In a variation on a theme, Orman echoed the opposition’s argument that the state was responsible for the university’s upkeep. But owing to the state’s inaction, it fell to the County to raise the money for the renovations.

“The state hasn’t done anything significant (for the university) in four years,” he said. “I don’t see that changing anytime soon.

Or perhaps Occam had it right and the simplest explanation is the correct one – county residents did not want to pay more taxes.

In 2022, voters rejected a more modest measure. That measure proposed a .2% sales tax over 20 years. It received just over 47% of the vote. This year’s measure received 42.5% of the vote.

Darren Fraser
Reporter