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Los Angeles city elections 2013

A decade of trying to raise L.A.'s sales tax

March 04, 2013|By Robert Greene
  • Los Angeles City Council President Herb Wesson Jr. proposed and stands behind Proposition A, a half-cent increase in the city sales tax.
Los Angeles City Council President Herb Wesson Jr. proposed and stands… (Francine Orr / Los Angeles…)

The half-cent sales tax increase proposal on the March 5 ballot known as Proposition A has been around for a long time in many guises, sometimes as a county tax, sometimes a city tax. Threats and reasons offered by Los Angeles city officials have included, in essence, pass it or risk another riot; pass it or risk a terrorist attack; pass it to fight a (nonexistent) surge in crime; pass it to fund a new gang-prevention department. The only time it actually came before voters, they rejected it. In other instances, county and city officials refused to put it on the ballot in the first place.

There have been temporary statewide increases in the sales tax, and Los Angeles voters have willingly taxed themselves for transportation improvements and environmental cleanup.

One interpretation (mine) is that voters just don't believe the pitches. It could be that they believe the real purpose for the increase is to pay for salary increases for police officers and other employees. The Times has come out against Proposition A. Los Angeles voters may well need to invest more in their city's future, but they deserve to first be part of a longer, and franker, discussion about how the additional revenue is to be used. And such a discussion should not come on the eve of new contract negotiations for employee unions. Nor should it come on the eve of a major turnover in city government, with neither the departing nor the incoming officials being held to account for the imposition of the tax or the use to which the revenues are put (although in fairness to council President Herb Wesson Jr., who rushed to put the measure on the ballot, he at least has the gumption to stand behind his action and will be around to be blamed or credited for the outcome). 

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Here is a brief history of the Los Angeles half-cent sales tax.

In November 2002, a few days after Gov. Gray Davis won re-election and Los Angeles County voters raised their own property taxes to shore up the trauma network, Sheriff Lee Baca called for a half-cent sales tax increase to protect the county against terrorism and to add more emergency hospital care. The county sales tax was to rise from 8.25% to 8.75%. The increase was to apply countywide, but most of the new revenue was to go to Baca’s department, which polices only about half the county.

At the time, Baca's deputies were pushing for salary increases and backing up their demands with wildcat strikes.

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County supervisors rejected Baca's request for a ballot measure, so he launched a signature campaign to get his tax on the ballot without their help. This time he wrote it so that some of the money would go to city police departments. Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn and the Police Commission quickly announced their support.

Baca’s petition drive failed, but by then Hahn and the City Council had become quite enthusiastic about the tax idea, so they went to the county supervisors and asked them to do for them what they earlier has refused to do for Baca. The L.A. city officials said the money would allow them to hire 1,600 more police officers, for a total of around 11,000, and to expand gang-intervention programs. New police and sheriff hires in the county and other cities would result in the net increase of 5,000 officers countywide.

This time the supervisors agreed to put the tax increase on the ballot and they dubbed it Measure A. It would need a two-thirds supermajority in the November 2004 state and county election to be adopted.

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Meanwhile, Antonio Villaraigosa, termed out of the state Assembly and defeated by Hahn in his 2001 bid to become mayor, had dropped his plans to run for the state Senate and instead was elected to the City Council. During his 2003 council campaign, he promised that he would serve out his term; but he instead quickly challenged Hahn for re-election and moved $500,000 from his state Senate campaign treasury into a new fund to back Baca’s sales tax. Of course, the fund was under his own control, not Baca’s, and as the sheriff and LAPD Chief William Bratton raised money and campaigned for Measure A, Villaraigosa ran a parallel sales tax campaign, featuring himself in TV commercials. Villaraigosa denied any connection between his Measure A commercials and his mayoral campaign.

The official Measure A campaign (not Villaraigosa's) featured an image of a newspaper article – from Arkansas – and fake headlines that asserted crime in Los Angeles was at “an all-time high.” In fact, Los Angeles County was in the midst of a historic and precipitous drop in crime. The fear card backfired; voters defeated the sales tax increase in the November 2004 election.

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