SMART Tax Renewal Passed by California Senate

As SMART officials stay mum on when they will seek extension of a sales tax needed to keep trains rolling, a bill enabling voters to place a renewal on the ballot has passed the California Senate.

Senate Bill 904, authored by state Sen. Bill Dodd, a Democrat from Napa, was proposed to help the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit secure its sales tax dollars, which account for nearly half of the agency’s total revenue. The tax collects about $51 million annually.

The new legislation would clarify that a citizens’ initiative process — in which voters are empowered to collect signatures on a petition to propose a measure — is an available route to the ballot. With enough signatures from voters in Sonoma and Marin counties, the measure could be considered at a special election and would require only a simple majority — rather than a two-thirds vote — to pass.

SMART, which operates 45 miles of passenger rail from Larkspur to Santa Rosa, opened in 2017 supported by a voter-approved quarter-cent sales tax across the two counties. That tax expires in 2029.

In 2020, SMART failed to gain the required two-thirds approval for a 30-year extension, leaving the agency financially vulnerable. The failed measure received a 54% majority vote in favor.

“We know we need to go back to the voters,” said Marin County Supervisor Eric Lucan, who serves as chair of the SMART board. “We want to have as many options available to continue our great success with SMART. Part of this is ensuring that all options are on the table.”

Lucan said he appreciates Dodd’s effort to push SB 904 forward.

The Senate passed the bill Tuesday on a 29-8 vote, with all Republicans voting no. The bill now heads to the Assembly.

In a statement, Dodd said SMART “is an incredible resource that helps achieve our goals of reducing emissions and providing an alternative to our congested highways.”

Julia Gonzalez, a SMART spokesperson, said the district has received numerous comments about the possibility of allowing a citizen-led voter-approved qualified initiative.

“SMART is supportive because it provides voters in Marin and Sonoma counties the opportunity to safeguard their investment in sustainable transportation,” Gonzalez said. “North Bay residents, as well as citizen advisory groups such as the Marin County Civil Grand Jury, have pointed out that local taxpayers have made a significant investment in a critical transportation system that needs to be preserved for future generations.”

Gonzalez said a citizens’ initiative cannot move forward without petitioners first collecting the necessary number of signatures.

“Per Elections Code section 9310, an initiative petition would require at least 10% of registered voters in the district,” said Lynda Roberts, Marin County registrar of voters.

At last count recorded on Feb. 20, there were 169,939 registered voters in Marin and 302,712 registered in Sonoma, according to the state elections data. Petitioners would need to gather more than 47,265 verified signatures for a valid initiative.

Once signatures are collected, the petition would be submitted to SMART staff, who then turn over signatures to elections departments in each county for verification, Roberts said. If certified, the petition would need to be presented to SMART officials to call an election, Roberts said.

Recent polling shows that of 642 responses from Sonoma County and Marin County voters, 65% indicated they would support a measure this November renewing the tax for 30 years. About 30% said no. The margin of error for the survey is plus or minus 4%.

SMART officials have agreed the only viable option to avert financial collapse would be a renewal. For now, officials have committed to focus its priorities on ridership growth.

The agency reports it continues to see more riders boosted by a program offering free fares for youths and seniors that launched in April. At last report on May 15, SMART trains had carried more than 722,900 riders for fiscal year-ending 2024, which is well above the 716,847 count set in pre-pandemic conditions in 2019.

Lucan said SMART is adding trips as more people are relying on its service.

“We’re making sure we’re setting this up for long-term success,” Lucan said.

Marin’s representatives in the Senate, Assembly and Congress said they’re on board with SB 904.

Senate President pro Tempore Mike McGuire said SMART and the Great Redwood Trail that runs along the spine of the rail corridor are great resources and have major momentum.

“Ridership numbers are now beyond pre-pandemic levels and multiple trail expansion projects are moving forward,” the Healdsburg Democrat said. “SMART’s success is the North Bay’s success.”

Assemblymember Damon Connolly, D-San Rafael, a former SMART board member, said the rail “is vital to connecting our region and promoting clean transit.”

“I am thankful to Sen. Dodd for authoring this meaningful legislation that will enhance community engagement and promote sustainable transportation,” Connolly said.

“Bottom line, it’s a great bill, and I support it wholeheartedly,” Congressman Jared Huffman said Wednesday. The San Rafael Democrat agreed that the rail service is an asset that “continues to get better and better.”

Huffman said he believes in the simple majority approval process made available through citizens’ initiatives.

“I believe democracies should be democracies,” Huffman said. “We need to get rid of these crazy supermajority, anti-democratic mechanisms that prevent community priorities from moving forward.”

Novato resident Mike Arnold, an economist who worked on the opposition campaign against SMART’s tax renewal measure in 2020, disagrees.

Arnold said gathering enough valid signatures will be hard, time-consuming work that would likely require enlisting paid petitioners.

Arnold said he is opposed to the use of citizens’ initiatives as a way to get around the two-thirds threshold. There is also the proposition referred to as the Taxpayer Protection and Government Accountability Act to consider, he said.

Essentially, the proposition aims to make it harder to raise taxes. That involves raising the threshold for certain measures such as citizens’ initiatives from a simple majority to a two-thirds majority. The Supreme Court is considering removing the proposition from the ballot.

“Even if SMART supporters obtained enough valid signatures to place a tax measure on the ballot, the effort would fail because voters aren’t likely to support the circumvention of Proposition 13,” the 1978 proposition that requires the two-thirds approval on special taxes in California, Arnold said.