Volunteers at the Lift Up Oakland campaign headquarters work to support Measure FF to increase the minimum wage. Photo by Alex Kekauouhah.

Voters say yes to boosting the minimum wage, higher sales tax and reclassifying some felonies

on November 5, 2014

As election results rolled in after the polls closed last night, advocates for several major policy changes celebrated victories at the state, county and local levels, including a statewide initiative that reduced penalties for certain non-violent offenses, an increase in Alameda County’s sales tax and a raise for Oakland’s minimum wage.

Alameda County residents agreed to double a transit-funding sales tax to one percent last night by passing Measure BB. (Voters defeated the similar Measure B two years ago.) The 30-year transportation expenditure plan was supported by the Alameda County Transportation Committee to repair railroads and highways. The group sent out a press release Wednesday morning stating that Measure BB will generate almost $8 billion over the next three decades and stimulate$20 billion in economic activity. The county will add 150,000 more transportation jobs, increase bicycle and pedestrian pathways, and improve transit for the cities in the county, the group wrote.

“We are thrilled,” said Tess Lengley, the group’s deputy director of planning and policy, speaking by phone early Wednesday morning. “This is a really great day for transportation to move us forward, support local jobs, and get people to their jobs.”

Opponents of Measure BB were not feeling so elated. David Schonbrunn, organizer of Transdef.org, a non-profit focused on climate change, believes that the measure is a shortsighted funding plan. “Climate is affected by big decisions like where do you put $8 billion of transportation funding,” he said. He thinks that a large portion of the funding that focuses on road repairs and building highways will benefit people who drive alone—rather than those who use public transit—which will in return have a negative effect on the environment.

But Lengley argued the measure is a carefully crafted plan that took four years to construct. “We had every city at the table,” she said, and added that the county has more investments than any other part of the state for building infrastructure for walking, biking, and access to transit. Residents can expect to see the transportation sales tax implemented in April 2015, and the money will be put back into their cities for street repairs, safety programs, and transportation for seniors and disabled citizens that summer, Lengley said.

In Oakland, many workers are set to receive a pay raise. Voters approved a minimum wage increase that will boost the earnings of low-wage workers to $12.25 an hour on March 1, 2015, a wage statute independent of state and federal law. “I’m happy for a lot of people here in Oakland that will benefit,” said Gary Jimenez, president of Lift Up Oakland, the organization that created and championed Measure FF. “It’s great to touch peoples’ lives that way.”

Measure FF is a landslide victory for the campaign–it won with 81 percent of the vote. The mandate is expected boost hourly wages for 48,000 workers and provide paid sick days for 56,000.

Oakland wasn’t the only Bay Area city to approve a minimum wage increase. San Francisco voted to raise its wage floor to $15 an hour by 2018, becoming only the second city in the nation to approve that amount, after Seattle. Locally, labor advocates argue that the rising cost of living has had adverse effects on the workforce’s lowest paid employees. But Jimenez believes this is only the beginning, and that more local governments around the Bay Area will soon follow Oakland and San Francisco’s lead. “I think we’ll see how popular this is and see other cities moving to do the same thing,” he said.

Lift Up Oakland is having a victory celebration on Friday at Venga Paella restaurant in Oakland. Jimenez said organizers from campaign plan to help the cities of Richmond, Berkeley and Emeryville approve increases for their workers.

But not everyone in Oakland supported the campaign. Measure FF was criticised for being too broad and not including provisions for small businesses and nonprofits, who might feel a heavier effect from a sudden wage increase. The measure also did not account for employees who receive tips, and can make up to $20 an hour thanks to gratuities. “I would hope that there’s some way to make some provisions and allowances for things like youth and starting wages as well as tipped employees,” said Scott Whidden, owner of Fenton’s Creamery, a family-owned small business. While he agrees that workers need to be compensated well for their work, Whidden is concerned about where he’ll come up with that extra money. “We’ll have to pass this along to the consumer,” he said.

At the state level, voters approved Proposition 47, the Reduced Penalties for Some Crimes Initiatives, which secured 58.5 percent of the vote. The initiative reclassifies several nonviolent property and drug crimes, such as personal use of illegal drugs and the shoplifting of property valued under $950, from felonies to misdemeanors. Inmates currently serving a prison sentence for any of these offenses will be eligible for resentencing, resulting in the predicted release of approximately 10,000 formerly incarcerated citizens, according to an email distributed by the group Californians for Safety and Justice. “Proposition 47 is a huge victory for the state–and for criminal justice reform advocates across the nation,” stated Lenore Anderson, the group’s executive director and chair of the initiative’s ballot committee, in the email.

By passing Proposition 47, California voters demonstrated their understanding that “the policies of the past have failed” and “that we cannot incarcerate our way to safety,” Anderson said in the statement. “Californians do not want to waste any more costly prison space on nonviolent, non-serious offenses or on ineffective policies that drain tax dollars, lead to high recidivism rates and tear apart communities.”

Anderson  said she was impressed by the disparate groups that came together to fight for Proposition 47.    The campaign for Proposition 47 was built with “unlikely allies and people from all walks of life,” Anderson said, including law enforcement veterans, faith leaders, civil rights advocates and crime victims.

But John Lovell, the government relations manager for the California Police Chiefs Association who wrote the argument against Proposition 47 for the California Voter Guide, was disappointed in the results. “We knew that the other side [outspent] us at a ratio of 17-to-1,” Lovell said. “And with that kind of imbalance in the amount of money spent on advertising and voter outcome, we know it was going to be a daunting task to beat 47.”

Lovell said the law enforcement community is very concerned about the release of approximately 10,000 state prison inmates, virtually all of whom, he said, have “serious and violent histories.”  Because these prisoners will be released with “virtually no supervision,” he said, the results of the proposition “will create furious public safety consequences.” Lovell said that despite these concerns, police will do their very best to adjust to these legal changes and continue to keep people safe.

Photo by Basil D Soufi
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