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Knabe says yes, but he'll vote no

The L.A. County supervisor backs an MTA sales tax measure for November ballot but vows to fight it.

August 08, 2008|Steve Hymon and Garrett Therolf | Times Staff Writers

To avoid spending $10.5 million in taxpayer money just to make a political point, Los Angeles County Supervisor Don Knabe announced Thursday that he would change his vote from "no" to "yes" and permit a half-cent sales tax increase for roads and mass transit to be placed on the November ballot with other general election issues.

Knabe, however, made it clear that he would continue to fight the tax proposal.

"I remain absolutely opposed to the MTA sales tax measure and I plan to spend my time and effort campaigning against it," Knabe said in a statement. "The plan is not equitable for all county residents and this is the wrong time to burden people with even higher taxes."

The reversal Thursday was the latest twist in an effort by local transportation officials to put a sales tax proposal before voters in November.

A state bill that is also required to allow the initiative to go to voters is bottled up in the Senate as officials fight over which mass transit projects would receive a share of the projected revenue of $30 billion to $40 billion.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority board last month approved putting the sales tax measure on the ballot. All five supervisors are on that board, but only two -- Yvonne B. Burke and Zev Yaroslavsky -- voted to go forward.

The issue landed before the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday. In a vote that was supposed to be procedural -- basically whether to approve a ballot with a sales tax increase on it -- the five supervisors could not muster a simple majority to do so.

The sales tax could still go to voters, officials said, but it would be on a second ballot that would have to be counted separately from the one used in the general election.

On Tuesday, county Registrar-Recorder Dean Logan had estimated that a separate ballot would cost $2 million to $3 million more.

But by Thursday, that estimate had ballooned to $10.5 million and Knabe decided to switch course. The supervisors are scheduled to meet Tuesday and Knabe's reversal will probably swing the majority in favor of putting the issue on the regular ballot.

Yaroslavsky praised Knabe. "It's a statesmanlike decision," he said.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa also applauded Knabe's announcement.

"The supervisor is doing the right thing," Villaraigosa said in a statement. "Playing games with the election process would have cost the taxpayers millions and disenfranchised thousands of voters."

MTA spokesman Rick Jager said his agency still would probably file a lawsuit against the county Friday to force the sales tax onto the regular ballot.

"We are appreciative of Supervisor Knabe's willingness to ask for reconsideration on this matter," Jager said. "However, to preserve all of our options we are moving forward with legal action and plan to be in court tomorrow."

A spokeswoman for Supervisor Gloria Molina said she did not plan to switch her vote. Molina abstained Tuesday.

"She feels very strongly that her abstention very accurately reflected how she felt about the entire issue," Roxane Marquez said. "She's not opposed in principle to a tax increase for public transportation, but the foundation for this measure was fundamentally flawed."

Meanwhile, the companion state bill, AB 2321, remained mired in the Senate.

For the second time this week, a hearing on the bill, sponsored by Assemblyman Mike Feuer (D-Los Angeles), was delayed in the Appropriations Committee as legislators argued over the list of projects the sales tax might fund.

One holdout on the committee is state Sen. Jenny Oropeza (D-Long Beach), who wants the project list to include an extension of the Green Line light rail to Los Angeles International Airport.

The MTA's spending plan for expected sales tax revenues includes $200 million for the Green Line extension. But the project -- like many others in the plan -- is not on the shorter list of projects in the state bill.

"For weeks, I have been pushing to include money for the Green Line extension to be part of this measure," Oropeza said in a news release issued Thursday. "There is no doubt this should be one of the highest priorities in L.A. County. This project would impact travelers and their families throughout the region."

It remains unclear if she will try to kill the bill if she doesn't get her way. Oropeza could not be reached for comment.

Another holdout on the committee is state Sen. Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles).

At his urging, the MTA included $780 million in its spending plan that would partially fund a tunnel for the 710 Freeway to fill a gap in the road between Pasadena and Alhambra. But Cedillo's support for the bill has wavered, although the reasons why are unknown.

He did not return telephone calls to his Sacramento office Thursday and declined two other interview requests from The Times in the last week.

Feuer said Thursday that the state bill faces two looming deadlines: It must be approved by the Legislature before the end of August and signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger by the end of September.

Feuer said he remained optimistic that the bill would be approved, although he has been resisting changing language in the bill any further.

"We're at the finish line now and I'm both optimistic and really quite confident that officials who have a say on this issue here in Sacramento will recognize that the voters of L.A. deserve the chance to decide for themselves whether they will be consigned to gridlock forever or whether we're going to transform the region," Feuer said Thursday on the "Patt Morrison" show on KPCC-FM (89.3).

"I think they're going to vote to transform the region."

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steve.hymon@latimes.com

garrett.therolf@latimes.com

For more coverage of the sales tax and other transportation issues, go to The Times' Bottleneck Blog at www.latimes.com/bottleneck.

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