With the deadline less than two weeks away, Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca is 41,000 signatures short of placing his proposed county sales tax initiative for law enforcement on the ballot.
Those backing the half-cent sales tax increase have until June 21 to collect the necessary signatures. About 130,000 have been collected so far -- 43,000 by volunteers and 87,000 by paid signature gatherers at a cost of $1.85 each.
That is well short of the 171,000 signatures needed to qualify the measure for the November election.
Because some signatures probably will be disqualified, political experts said a safe margin is 10% more, or about 188,000 signatures.
"I think they've got their work cut out for them," political consultant Rick Taylor said of the signature deficit.
"It can happen, but you have to pay a premium. You have a lot of people on the street [to gather signatures] and you have to give them some enticement."
Democratic political consultant Kam Kuwata, who would not comment specifically on the Baca initiative, said it is not unusual to see a sudden, eleventh-hour spike in signatures.
"To a large degree, these initiatives reach a certain crescendo, where if your plan is laid out huge numbers come in all of a sudden because your timing is on target," Kuwata said. "You get a late rush that can close the gap."
Baca aide Steve Whitmore said that although the sales tax measure was "not a slam dunk," the sheriff was cautiously optimistic that the required number of signatures would be obtained by the deadline.
"This is a grass-roots campaign that didn't start with a lot of money, but is being fueled by hundreds of volunteers," Whitmore said.
"As the deadline nears, the volunteers are getting significantly more active in their efforts to gather the required number of signatures. It will go down to the wire."
As of Tuesday, the campaign in favor of the tax hike had spent $332,000, Whitmore said. It has raised $500,000 and has $168,000 on hand. Whitmore said there were commitments for an additional $200,000.
The campaign has hired Arno Political Consultants in Sacramento to gather signatures. Cerrell & Associates also has been hired as consultants.
Should it qualify and be approved, Baca's measure would increase the Los Angeles County sales tax by half a cent -- from 8.25% to 8.75% -- to generate an estimated $500 million a year for law enforcement.
Sales tax revenues would be divided three ways: among the Sheriff's Department, Los Angeles Police Department and the county's smaller police departments.
Baca, who came up with the initiative and has staked considerable political capital in pushing it, also stands to get hurt if it does not qualify.
In its latest budget, the Sheriff's Department has been told to slash $35 million -- to cover increased workers' compensation and other employee costs -- on top of $167 million in cuts during the previous two years.
Baca first proposed a county sales tax initiative in late 2002, when he asked the Board of Supervisors to place the issue before voters.
But the board 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.
Though Baca has received endorsements from some Los Angeles City Council members and LAPD Chief William J. Bratton, county supervisors have reacted coolly to the measure.
Some have suggested that the county should charge millions more to 40 cities that contract for Sheriff's Department services.
Baca's political momentum has been hurt in recent weeks as he reacted to troubles in the county jail system, including a spate of five inmate killings since October.
But Taylor, who said Baca had done a good job of promoting the sales tax initiative, noted that such issues aren't likely to sway people signing petitions in a grocery store parking lot.
"He's up against the tax issue and I don't care if you are Republican or Democrat, it's just hard to ask people to pay more money," he said.
Or, Taylor said, it could be petition fatigue.
"These people signed a lot of petitions," he said. "Maybe the public is just petitioned out. Maybe it's saying, 'Hey, we've had enough and it doesn't matter what it is.' "