Determined to raise new funds for law enforcement, Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca will start collecting signatures today for a November ballot initiative that would raise the sales tax by a half-cent.
To collect the 200,000 signatures necessary to qualify the initiative for the ballot, Baca will rely on volunteers from community organizations. The effort will get underway at a South Los Angeles prayer breakfast.
If approved by Los Angeles County voters, Baca's plan to raise the tax from 8.25% to 8.75% would generate $500 million annually. The money would be divided among the Sheriff's Department, the Los Angeles Police Department and dozens of smaller police agencies.
"The bottom line is the public needs to understand this is the only way to make the streets safer," Baca said. "For too long, we've been doing too much with too little."
Baca first proposed a sales tax initiative in late 2002, when he asked Los Angeles County supervisors to place the issue before voters. But the Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to reject the request. Baca resurrected his proposal in September, saying local governments cannot count on the state to provide adequate funding for public safety.
The sheriff's budget requests have been trimmed by $166 million over the last two years, and more cuts are expected in the wake of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's proposed budget for the coming fiscal year. It calls for a $1.3-billion cut in funding for local governments.
The Los Angeles City Council is considering a citywide tax measure for law enforcement.
In light of the governor's budget, Los Angeles Police Commissioner Rick Caruso persuaded fellow panel members this week to have their staff produce a report on a potential ballot measure for police funding.
Councilman Eric Garcetti, who with Councilman Alex Padilla proposed the study, said his colleagues will have to support Baca if they don't come up with their own funding initiative.
LAPD Chief William J. Bratton has not endorsed any proposal, but said his department is desperately understaffed.
Some politicians and analysts say a tax increase is never an easy sell, given that two-thirds of voters must approve any hike.
Political consultant Allan Hoffenblum said Baca may have chosen the most palatable tax.
"Every survey that I've seen, the tax that is most tolerable is the sales tax," Hoffenblum said.
Still, it's going to be a "tough sell," he said.
Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a USC political science professor, said Baca is going to have get the support of elected leaders. "You cannot do it alone. He has to get law enforcement on board. The police unions are vital."
Baca's relationship with the Assn. of Los Angeles County Sheriffs Deputies is frosty. Deputies have been without a contract for almost a year, and some staged wildcat sickouts last fall.
"It is a daunting task," Baca said of the campaign. "But the public needs to know the seriousness of the problem."