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Mayoral candidates making budget statements, but nothing adds up

The fiscal problems facing Los Angeles are specific and urgent, and anything short of an honest plan to address them is a waste of everyone's time.

February 09, 2013|Steve Lopez
  • L.A. mayoral candidates Eric Garcetti, left, Wendy Greuel, Kevin James, Jan Perry and Emanuel Pleitez appear at a debate at Loyola Marymount University on Tuesday.
L.A. mayoral candidates Eric Garcetti, left, Wendy Greuel, Kevin James,… (Wally Skalij, Los Angeles…)

You're six months behind on the mortgage. Your credit cards are maxed out. Your small business is treading water.

Meanwhile, a tree has fallen on the roof of the office, the parking lot is full of potholes, and you've promised raises to employees, along with free healthcare into eternity.

So what should you do about a mounting deficit that could lead to bankruptcy?

You could make some hard choices, or you could follow the lead of the candidates for mayor of Los Angeles.

I subjected myself to two mayoral debates last week — one at the Autry National Museum and another at the Valley Performing Arts Center at Cal State Northridge — and I listened to a third debate on KPCC. Among the five candidates, there was not a single substantive plan to close next year's projected $220-million deficit or the more than $1-billion hole that could be dug four years down the road.

Even when the candidates were pressed on the math, as they were in the Thursday debate by former mayoral candidate Austin Beutner, they fudged and fluttered. Not one candidate came within a hundred miles of answering Beutner's questions about how in the world they intend to balance the budget. Instead, they delivered prepared lines from their perches, and it was like watching the parrot show at Disneyland's Tiki Room.

It's par for the course in politics — especially in a primary campaign — for candidates to dance, juke and shrink away from specifics that might jam them up later on. But that's not working for me here, because the problems are specific and urgent, and anything short of an honest plan to address them is a waste of everyone's time.

"I have to say, I was a little disappointed," said Beutner, who sounded more than just a little disappointed.

Beutner ran the debate like a professor, using pie charts to illustrate the problem. You've got to square the budget either by cutting costs, increasing revenue or both, he told his students. But the candidates are all opposed to a half-cent sales tax increase that would raise about $200 million a year, and City Controller Wendy Greuel and Councilman Eric Garcetti would also eliminate a business tax that brings in as much as $488 million a year.

"Sophistry," said Beutner, who briefly managed more than a dozen city departments as deputy mayor.

Also on Thursday, by the way, while the candidates waved their magic wands at the budget hole, City Administrative Officer Miguel Santana said that without the sales tax increase or other additional revenue, the only options are to lay off 500 cops, close swimming pools and lay off crossing guards, among other cuts.

At this point, maybe instead of wondering if there's a candidate who might close the deficit, we should be worrying about which one will pad it. Garcetti, Greuel, Councilwoman Jan Perry and the outsiders — Kevin James and Emanuel Pleitez — all say they'll generate more revenue by making the city more business-friendly. But that's a slogan, not a plan.

When Garcetti said on Thursday that there's a $50-million savings in getting all city employees to contribute 10% toward their healthcare coverage, Beutner's response was polite but pointed:

“Eric, $1.4 billion,” which, by one projection, is the potential deficit in four years, although Garcetti argued that revised figures are somewhat less daunting. "I'm still looking for it."

He was looking in the wrong room.

What about Greuel's claim that she's found $160 million in waste, fraud and abuse?

"Do I think it's all real? Of course not," Beutner said.

Garcetti keeps pointing out that he helped whittle hundreds of millions of dollars to get the projected deficit down to a mere $220 million. That involved about 5,000 dismissals and concessions from public employee unions, and the city is definitely better off than it was before the mayor and City Council chipped away at the financial disaster they helped create.

But here's an astounding figure: About 70% of the city's employees pay nothing toward their healthcare costs.

Zero.

The average American worker pays 27% of the cost of employee-sponsored healthcare.

Look, city employees aren't the bad guys here. They show up on time, punch out at the end of the day and go home with the deals their union bosses won for them by muscling the politicians.

But among the main contenders, only Perry is adamant about saying the vast bulk of the city budget is tied up in employee and retiree costs, so there's no way forward without employees making more concessions.

(I'd argue that giveaways to corporate donors — like the deals Perry has helped engineer for the billionaire owner of L.A. Live — are also worth a harder look. About $35 million was spent on lobbying last year at City Hall, where everyone knows that if you want to play, sometimes you've got to pay.)

In the final three weeks of the primary, you can expect the candidates to keep ganging up on Greuel, and asking whether public employee unions would be throwing money at her if they thought she'd ever drive a hard bargain.

"Everything is on the table," Greuel has now said approximately 12,000 times in the campaign.

Is there a sharp knife on the table, so I can stab myself the next time she says it?

Greuel said she wants to go after double-dipping, spiking and pensions for convicts. Crowd pleasers, for sure. But nickels and dimes in the grand scheme.

Beutner said he's got a friend who's a firefighter in his 50s "who could retire tomorrow at 120 grand for life. Tell me how that works."

It doesn't.

Nor does Greuel's most preposterous claim of the week. Budget deficits be damned, she said she's going to hire 2,000 more cops and hundreds more firefighters.

It was not clear how she would pay for them.

I think we can assume that everything's on the table.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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