‘P’ is for passed: With a favorable court ruling, things in Fresno are looking up for 2018’s Measure P

When I talked to Lilia Chavez on Friday morning, the executive director of the Fresno Arts Council was having a stellar day. She was still in a glow from Thursday’s big news about Measure P.

“I’m elated,” Chavez said. “I feel like my heart has grown two sizes.”

Pictured above: Volunteers Amy Lawrence, Nikiko Masumoto and Elva Rodriguez push for Measure P at the Big Fresno Fair. (2018 file photo)

If you’re in the arts community and haven’t yet heard about the development, be assured that the news is (potentially) tremendous: A state appeals court ruled that the 2018 ballot sales-tax measure raising money for parks and arts, which had appeared to go down to defeat because it didn’t reach the required two-thirds majority, actually passed because it achieved 52% of the vote. In the process of carving out new case law on the topic, the court determined that a citizen-led initiative such as Measure P only needed a simple majority for passage.

Also big news, according to The Bee and others: The City of Fresno and major politicos in town, including Mayor Lee Brand and Mayor-elect Jerry Dyer, will not continue to oppose the implementation of the initiative.

What could this mean for local arts and cultural groups? The estimate is that Measure P could raise $4 million a year. The money will be disbursed in grants by an appointed board.


A major part of the funding — an estimated $35 million annually — will go to improving and expanding Fresno’s parks, which have consistently been rated as pretty rotten in terms of upkeep, safety and amount of public open space per capita compared to cities our size across the nation. In a 2018 column, Marek Warszawski noted that Fresno spends $35.33 per capita on parks compared to Long Beach ($203.11), Oakland ($140.71), Sacramento ($118.76) and Bakersfield ($73.56).

The average Fresno household will spend about $3.25 per month on Measure P taxes.

In a larger sense, the passage of the initiative — along with local support for the Fresno County Public Library and school-district bonds — is great news for the civic life of Fresno. Add in the update about Southwest Airlines coming to Fresno Yosemite International Airport and you have a winner of a week for the city.

The Measure P issue still isn’t a done deal. The Bee reports that the Howard Jarvis Tax Association plans to appeal the ruling to the California Supreme Court. But with the city dropping out of the fight and another appellate court decision on a similar case affirming the majority-rules interpretation, there’s lots of room for optimism. David Taub of GV Wire writes:

“The decision will almost be assuredly appealed to the state Supreme Court. However, it is unknown if the Supreme Court will hear the case.”


The appellate ruling didn’t come as a complete surprise to Chavez, who fought hard for passage of the measure alongside the Central Valley Community Foundation and dozens of other community organizations. She’s been cautiously optimistic since 2018. (I asked her to rate herself on an astonishment scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being that she wasn’t surprised at all and 10 being total shock at the news. She rated herself a 4.) But the news comes at a particularly good time.

“We’ve had to deal with so much because of Covid,” she said. “The survival of many programs is questionable. This just gives us hope.”

She spoke on a busy morning in which she and her staff were doing another important thing for the arts in Fresno: giving out checks. The City of Fresno entrusted the Fresno Arts Council with $1.5 million in CARES Act monies to distribute. The council received 237 applications with requests in excess of $3.8 million.

An email sent this week to grant recipients stated: “Our objective in facing this challenge was to distribute these funds equitably and ensure some support for all qualified applicants. This meant reducing grant amounts across all categories rather than resorting to a lottery or inventing new criteria to eliminate applicants.”

The arts can use the help. We just learned this past week that the Bach Children’s Choir shut down after 17 years, a direct casualty of the pandemic. Other groups are struggling. Some year-end fundraising campaigns have an air of desperation, and for good reason.

And that’s just Covid-related. Chavez pointed out that the Fresno cultural scene has been walloped in recent years, including the loss of such major institutions as Fresno Grand Opera and StageWorks Fresno.

If Measure P is ultimately upheld, a number of variables still have to be determined. Will it be retroactive to the time it was originally supposed to take effect? If so, much-needed funds may start flowing to needy groups sooner than later. If we have to wait for the taxes to go into effect, then there will be a longer waiting period, obviously. Whatever the timeline, a blueprint in the form of a cultural plan has to be established, and the citizen commission that will ultimately determine the allocation of funds will have to be appointed and organized.

Still, for a person who has had to make do with limited funding, struggling organizations and a shut-down economy, there’s a reason why Chavez was smiling Friday.

“I continue to be optimistic and hopeful,” she said.

(I’ll interrupt here with an update 12/22: Congrats to Chavez for her own recent election news:)

I have a few more thoughts about Measure P:

• I’ve long been a vociferous opponent of the two-thirds majority required for passage of many tax-related measures in the state. Allowing a minority to thwart the will of the majority goes against the fundamental principles of democratic governance in which I believe. (Don’t even get me started on the Electoral College.) You don’t like the fact that Measure P passed with 52%? Tough. You were outvoted. Your “no” shouldn’t have more power than my “yes.”

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• I’m irritated at the craven opposition and lack of civic foresight demonstrated by the organized opposition to Measure P we saw in 2018. While I’m glad that some of that opposition appears to have faded, it was still a monumental exercise in short-sightedness for the politicians in question to actively oppose a measure that would so greatly improve this city’s livability. (If you recall, the naysayers argued that Measure P would take funding away from public safety, a flat-out inaccuracy.) Quality of life isn’t just a feel-good thing. The cultural arts have a demonstrable and significant economic impact on a city — and create “clean” jobs. Parks and green spaces improve health and the environment. An improved civic infrastructure attracts well-educated residents and the businesses that want to employ them.

• I wish all this could have happened more quickly. Having worked for a daily newspaper for so many years, where the turn-around time and deadlines are intense, I’ve always been annoyed at the sluggish pace of our justice system. Two years to decide something this important? Ridiculous. If all this had been decided a year ago, say, and the Measure P funds had started flowing, would StageWorks Fresno still be around today? That’s probably impossible to say. But I can at least imagine a world in which that theater company would still be kicking. Perhaps we should institute legal reforms to reduce the bureaucratic bloat and speed up the process, particularly where a ballot measure is concerned.

Still, what I mostly am is happy. Really happy. And I’ll be ecstatic if the final result favors Measure P. Until then, I’ll be counting the days to an invigorated Fresno cultural scene.

Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

Comments (1)

  • Jackie Ryle

    I so appreciate this story – both for comprehensive content and the great historical overview. Thank you, Donald, for always bringing the whole story in your wonderful inimitable style!


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