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Clearing the Road for Pet Projects

Politics: Ballot initiative would divert 30% of auto sales taxes to causes that include a golf cart path.

September 09, 2002|JON ORTIZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — Casino operators, land developers, museum boosters and a major private university, among others, have poured millions into a November ballot initiative that would funnel tax dollars into their favorite projects in the name of easing freeway congestion.

Proposition 51 would take car sales taxes that normally help pay for prisons, parks, health care and other government services and use them to finance dozens of projects, including a rail line with stops at an Indian casino, golf cart paths for a gated retirement community, fuel-efficient boats for Lake Tahoe and a railroad museum addition.

The proposition, titled the Traffic Congestion Relief and Safe School Buses Act, guarantees 30% of state motor vehicle sales taxes would be set aside for road and transit projects and a smattering of land conservation grants.

In 2003-04, state analysts predict that would translate into $870 million. Of that amount, $228 million would be allocated as seed money to dozens of earmarked projects, including $183 million for Southern California. The remainder of the money would be divided among state agencies, which in turn would divide the money among California counties for transportation or conservation projects.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday September 19, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 15 inches; 569 words Type of Material: Correction
Proposition 51--A story in Section A on Sept. 9 about Proposition 51 incorrectly said the measure would establish regional boards to purchase and manage undeveloped land. Instead, existing agencies would be used for that purpose. The story also incorrectly quoted budget analyst Jean Ross as saying the "state never takes in less money from one year to the next." She said that occurs "rarely," rather than "never."

The sponsor of the proposition is the Planning and Conservation League, a Sacramento-based lobbying organization whose leaders say they want to protect the environment. The measure, which would go into effect Jan. 1, has split California's environmental community and angered some legislators, who complain that it would force cuts to other programs to pay for projects that have not gone through the usual process for evaluating and selecting transportation proposals.

"This thing earmarks projects that cater to contributors' interests. It will sacrifice kids and the poor so that people have a nice ride from L.A. to a casino, for God's sake," said Sen. John Vasconcellos (D-Santa Clara), a 36-year veteran of the Legislature and one of its leading experts on government finance.

The sponsor of Proposition 51 acknowledged that many projects were selected with an eye toward getting contributions that would pay for the campaign to pass the initiative. So far, the Planning and Conservation League has raised $2.47 million and hopes to take in another $8 million by Nov. 4.

"There's no question that we picked projects where we thought people might contribute as a result," said Jerry Meral, the league's executive director. "That was not to say that out of those more than a hundred projects that was the only criteria. But after all, these things are expensive and we wanted to get contributions."

Projects that found their way into the initiative include:

* A $120-million rail line starting in Los Angeles, stopping in Palm Springs and ending in Indio near the Spa Resort Casino operated by the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, which gave $250,000 to the measure.

* A $2-million golf cart path along El Toro Road to Leisure World, a gated retirement village in Orange County, and $12 million for boats, fueling stations and docks for Lake Tahoe.

* A $75-million project to provide rail service to USC. The university's $300,000 is the largest single contribution to date. USC President Steven B. Sample decided to donate the money after the Planning and Conservation League amended the proposition to guarantee that the transit line would go underground as it entered Exposition Park, a university spokeswoman said.

* A $7-million interchange expansion at California 126 and Interstate 5 that would feed Newhall Land and Farming's proposed 21,000-home construction project along the Santa Clarita River. "It's very important to our company," said Newhall spokeswoman Marlee Lauffer. Newhall gave $150,000 to the initiative campaign.

* A $7-million guarantee for a proposed Railroad Technology Museum, with $1 million each year to staff and maintain it. The nonprofit California State Railroad Museum Foundation contributed $10,000 to Proposition 51.

Those set-asides for special projects would decrease over time, and the money would shift to either the California Transportation Commission for road projects or any of several regional boards that would be established by the measure to purchase and manage undeveloped land.

Meral, who was deputy of a department under former Gov. Jerry Brown that managed water resources, views the initiative as a way to send a message to the Legislature and the governor about urban sprawl, traffic congestion and pollution. "The initiative process, in my view at least, is reserved for the times when you've failed in the Legislature," he said. "The legislative process as it has worked until now has brought us an under-investment in infrastructure.... The fundamental reason we went to the initiative process was to rebuild the state's infrastructure."

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