Los Angeles City Council President Alex Padilla unveiled a legally provocative plan Wednesday to put a half-cent sales-tax increase on the May ballot that he said could pass with just a majority of the vote, not the two-thirds usually required to raise taxes.
Padilla and other officials said the increase would enable the city to expand the Los Angeles Police Department, which is understaffed compared with other major urban departments. The plan comes two months after a similar countywide measure was defeated when it fell short of the needed two-thirds vote.
Padilla's idea, which would raise the city sales tax from 8.25% to 8.75%, relies on some legal two-stepping. Instead of earmarking the revenue for a specific purpose, which requires a two-thirds vote, Padilla is proposing to ask voters to approve a routine sales-tax increase, which requires just a simple majority.
That means council members could spend the money on anything they pleased, from elephants for the zoo to hybrid cars for city employees. But accompanying the tax-increase proposal on the ballot would be an "advisory question." In that separate ballot measure, voters would be asked whether they wanted any new tax funds to be spent on public safety, including the hiring of additional police officers.
"The beauty is, instead of two-thirds, we need 50% plus one," Padilla said Wednesday afternoon as he explained the idea to two colleagues. "It's a smart way of achieving what we've been trying to achieve for a long time: improving public safety and expanding the LAPD."
Padilla said he got the idea from a November 1996 tax increase in Santa Clara County, in which two measures were placed side by side on the ballot. Measure A was an "advisory vote," stating that new revenues should be spent on transportation. Measure B was a half-cent increase to the sales tax for nine years.
The advisory vote received a 78% "yes" vote. The tax hike received approval from 52% of the voters. The funding plan survived a legal challenge and was upheld in June 1998 by a state appellate court.
But Santa Clara County decided not to take the two-stage approach when it went back to voters for another sales-tax measure to pay for transportation projects in 2000. Silicon Valley Manufacturing Group CEO Carl Guardino, who helped lead the campaigns, said polling showed the measure would reach the two-thirds threshold, making the two-stage approach unnecessary. But he added that local leaders also did not want the measure to get bogged down in the courts.
Several council members and Mayor James K. Hahn have expressed support for studying Padilla's idea. The council would have to approve submitting the proposal to voters by Jan. 26 for the measures to appear on the spring ballot.
The mayor, who has made his record on public safety the centerpiece of his reelection campaign, has said he is determined to get some type of tax increase for more police officers on the May ballot.
He has repeatedly said that officials can't "ignore" that 64% of Los Angeles voters backed the sales-tax increase in November, nearly enough to pass the measure in the city.
A spokeswoman for City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo said his office was researching whether Padilla's approach was legal.
Councilwoman Janice Hahn, the mayor's sister, was enthusiastic.
"If the city attorney says it is legal and we can do it, I absolutely think this is the way to go," she said. "Two-thirds to me always represents that one person's no vote [overriding] two people's yes vote. I think, you know, that's wrong."
But some, including several of Hahn's mayoral opponents, questioned the plan, calling it misguided and possibly illegal.
Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn., dismissed the approach as "a scheme" and said it attempts to get around the two-thirds vote requirement for approval of a special tax for a specific purpose.
"We will certainly oppose it politically," he said. But he reserved judgment on whether the anti-tax group would challenge it in court.
Coupal said Proposition 218, passed by California voters in November 1996, restricts the ability of cities and counties to seek a general sales-tax increase and then direct that the new tax money be spent for a specific purpose. The initiative passed at the same time Santa Clara voters approved their two-measure tax hike, leaving open the question of whether such an approach would still be legal.
Former Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg, who is running for mayor, said, "I would oppose this. It's a blank check." Hertz- berg also said it was unwise to raise the city sales tax if surrounding cities, such as Glendale and Pasadena, do not. That might encourage consumers to shop in those places, rather than Los Angeles.
Hertzberg also said he believed it was possible to expand the police force if the mayor and City Council cut the rest of the city budget by 2%. "We can do this without a tax increase," he said.
Councilman Bernard C. Parks, another candidate for mayor, also expressed concern that businesses in the city could be hurt if Los Angeles became an island with the highest sales-tax rate in Southern California.
Parks also said he was not convinced the approach was legal.
Brendan Huffman, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, said the group would review the various proposals advanced by Padilla, Hahn and Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa, who is challenging Hahn for a second time.
"Some of our members based in the city of Los Angeles, who are retailers, have expressed concern that this places them at a competitive disadvantage with competitors in neighboring cities," Huffman said.
"At the same time, the Chamber is very interested in strengthening our police force."
Times staff writer Noam N. Levey contributed to this report.