Two council members from the west San Fernando Valley are the chief obstacles to Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's bid to place a $243-million telephone tax on the Feb. 5 presidential primary ballot.
With the proposed measure coming before the City Council today, Councilmen Greig Smith and Dennis Zine -- two of the council's most fiscally conservative members -- still have not announced whether they will support it.
When the 15-member council drafted the ballot language for the tax two weeks ago, Smith and Zine were the only ones who voted no. And because the tax cannot reach the ballot without a unanimous vote, they loom as pivotal players in the city's effort to preserve the tax.
Smith chief of staff Mitch Englander said Monday that his boss was "trying to figure out what's in the best interests of the city." Zine, who returned Monday from city business in Japan, said he had not decided.
The council has until Wednesday to declare that the loss of the tax would create an "emergency" -- language that is legally necessary to send the city's telephone utility users tax to voters.
Proposition 218, the 1996 statewide tax initiative, requires general city taxes to come up for a vote in the same elections as council members unless an emergency is declared. If no emergency is declared, the tax cannot reach voters until 2009.
City officials see the proposed ballot measure as insurance in case the tax is struck down by a court later this year. Although the tax is currently levied at 10% and generates $270 million annually, Villaraigosa has recommended that a 9% tax go on the ballot, which would allow the city to campaign on the idea that it is a tax cut.
Council members privately said they hoped Zine and Smith would fall in line with their colleagues. But Zine still isn't sure the city will face an emergency if it loses the tax money -- and will decide only after reading various reports, he said Monday.
"Are they going to cut the Police Department in half? Are they going to cut the Fire Department in half? What are the consequences of not having the dollars?" Zine asked. "They haven't shown me anything -- 'they' meaning the people who are supporting this."
Villaraigosa made a brief pitch for the tax when he appeared Saturday before a group of neighborhood council leaders. The mayor said the loss of the tax revenue would be equivalent to losing 3,000 police officers.
Since then, the mayor's aides have been in "constant contact" with Zine and Smith to get them on board, Villaraigosa spokesman Matt Szabo said.
A representative of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn., which wrote Proposition 218, had no plans for addressing the council today, saying such an act would be tantamount to "lecturing a brick wall."
Smith and Zine could reasonably argue that there is no immediate need to vote on the tax, said association executive director Kris Vosburgh.
"They certainly would come out as heroes if they came out and said this was a rush to judgment," Vosburgh said. "But I just don't know if they have it in them."
Councilman Richard Alarcon suggested two weeks ago that opponents of the tax could simply step out of the room when the vote was taken, allowing for a unanimous yes vote. But Zine said he had no plans to do so.
"I either vote yes or no," he said.