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Close vote on transit sales-tax hike

Measure R falls just short of the two-thirds vote needed in early returns. School bond measures heading to easy victory.

November 05, 2008|David Zahniser, Steve Hymon and Martha Groves | Zahniser, Hymon and Groves are Times staff writers.

The fate of a half-cent sales tax hike known as Measure R was too close to call in Los Angeles County Tuesday, despite a massive voter turnout providing a major boost to the ambitious transportation plan.

The road and rail construction measure, which is crucial to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's effort to build a Subway to the Sea, was just under the two-thirds vote needed for passage, according to partial returns.

Villaraigosa and an array of elected officials had been banking on high voter turnout to push the measure to victory. And the electorate delivered, with an estimated 82% of voters turning out -- more than in any previous election year, county election officials said.

The mayor voiced hope that by early today, the county's remaining ballots would push Measure R over the top.

"I've said from the beginning that this was going to be a tough fight," the mayor said. "Were it not for the recession, I believe there would be overwhelming support for this measure."

Measure R faced a great deal of competition, with nearly three dozen other cities, school boards and community college districts placing their own tax measures on the ballot. Los Angeles, Long Beach and El Monte each had three tax measures on the ballot. And some smaller cities, such as Pico Rivera and El Monte, were pursuing their own sales tax hikes.

Tax proposals that needed less than two-thirds of the votes cast had an easier time. Measure Q, a $7-billion facilities bond issue backed by the Los Angeles Unified School District, was heading to an easy victory. Measure J, a $3.5-billion bond measure to rebuild and replace campus facilities in the Los Angeles Community College District, had an even stronger showing, according to partial results. Those measures needed only 55% to pass.

According to early returns, voters were narrowly rejecting Proposition A, the Los Angeles city tax hike to pay for anti-gang measures, which needed two-thirds to win approval.

City Councilwoman Janice Hahn, who had pushed for Proposition A, said the measure had struggled to overcome the effect of a crumbling economy.

"We were asking a lot of people on this ballot -- new schools, new community college buildings, high-speed rail," Hahn said. "I think voters had to pick and choose, because at this time, they couldn't afford to pay for everything."

Opponents of the proposed tax hikes had argued that local elected officials asked for too much in an economic downturn. Measure J was the college district's third bond in seven years. Measure Q was L.A. Unified's fifth in 11 years.

One taxpayer advocate said renters were the key to the strong showing of the two school bond measures, which increase taxes on property owners only.

"When they get into that polling place, they don't have to worry about whether they can afford to pay for that fifth bond from the school district," said Kris Vosburgh, executive director of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn.

Measure R applies to any business or individual who spends money in the county.

Backers of the proposed transit tax said it would generate enough revenue to pay for 30 projects over 30 years. With Congress expected to approve a transportation bill to pay for road and mass transit projects, a victory for Measure R would make it easier to tap those funds, they said.

"This is the most important ballot measure in Los Angeles for the past 20 or 30 years," Assemblyman Mike Feuer (D-Los Angeles) said earlier this week.

Measure R identified up to $4.1 billion for a westward extension of the Metro system's Purple Line in Los Angeles. The existing subway was originally supposed to reach the Westside, but never made it there because of political opposition and a lack of funds.

The most vocal foes of Measure R were the politicians who represent outlying sections of the county, such as Long Beach, the east San Gabriel Valley and the high desert. They argued that too much of Measure R's proceeds would be spent on Los Angeles, particularly the subway.

If Measure R fails, some elected officials who opposed the tax increase have said that they would consider another tax measure at a future date.

Complicating this year's campaign was the downturn in the economy, which made it more difficult for politicians to raise money for their ballot measures. By September, even some political leaders were beginning to wonder aloud whether voters, terrified about their shrinking 401(k)s, would suddenly grow skittish about new taxes.

With unemployment rising and consumer confidence falling, those campaigns began to reshape their message to resonate in the new economic climate.

Los Angeles community college officials argued that Measure J would create new jobs in the field of environmentally friendly technologies. Villaraigosa appeared in mailers for Measure Q saying a school bond issue would revive the local economy. And Measure R backers said their sales tax hike would produce 210,000 jobs.

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