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Mixed signals on city budget give voters more reason for cynicism

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa wasn't as disappointed as might be expected by the sales-tax proposal's rejection by about 55% of voters in Tuesday's election.

March 09, 2013|Steve Lopez
  • Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa kept a low profile in the debate over Measure A.
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa kept a low profile in the debate… (Charles Dharapak / Associated…)

When I scolded deadbeat Angelenos for blowing off Tuesday's election, some of them had just enough energy to return fire.

"I chose not to spit into the wind anymore," wrote Lou.

"It is not an embarrassment to shun an embarrassment like L.A. 'government' and L.A. politicians," wrote Loren.

Just as I was about to scold them all over again, along came Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who reminded us why there's such raging cynicism in Los Angeles.

Let's go back to early February, when Villaraigosa endorsed Measure A. That was the proposal for a half-cent sales-tax increase that would have raised about $200 million a year in a city with a projected annual budget shortfall of roughly that very amount for years to come.

Villaraigosa came to the party late, though, and then kept an atypically low profile.

Why?

He is not widely beloved and might have figured that if he were prominently attached to Measure A, it would sink like a rock.

Or he might have felt the timing couldn't be more ridiculous, given that Californians had just voted themselves a quarter-cent sales tax increase with Proposition 30.

Or he might have been uncomfortable about arguing that the sky was falling in a city that's been under his leadership for nearly eight years.

So while Villaraigosa stayed in hiding for the most part on Measure A, the surrogates included City Administrative Officer Miguel Santana, City Council President Herb Wesson and LAPD Chief Charlie Beck. Beck was in many ways the face of Measure A, arguing that if it didn't pass, he could lose 500 cops.

Mailers warned that although city leaders had cut to the bone and saved millions, there'd be dire consequences if Measure A tanked. Good luck in an emergency, because firefighters and paramedics might take longer to respond. After-school programs could be eliminated, swimming pools and animal shelters might be closed, and don't let little Johnny walk to school, because crossing guards could be laid off.

But this grim scenario was dealt a blow when Matt Szabo, a City Council candidate and former Villaraigosa budget deputy, said city officials were using "fuzzy math" to overstate the depth of the shortfall as they promoted the sales-tax increase. When The Times' David Zahniser, who broke the story, asked Villaraigosa about Szabo's comments, the mayor accused the reporter of "trying to create a controversy."

I quote now from Zahniser's story on Feb. 12:

"I'll tell you this. I stand behind these numbers," said Villaraigosa, appearing with Police Chief Charlie Beck near a display identifying the shortfall as $216 million.

I'll tell you this. The mayor makes this too easy for me.

So let’s move now to last Tuesday, when Measure A went down in flames, due in part to fears that any new revenue would be plowed into the growing cost of employee pay and retirement benefits.

Two days later, when Villaraigosa checked in, was he distraught?

Not at all.

"The economy's getting better," he said in another Zahniser story, adding that the deficit could be less than $100 million rather than the $216 million on which Measure A was based. "So I don't expect that we're going to have draconian cuts."

Villaraigosa, it turns out, had met with local economists BEFORE THE ELECTION and was given some encouraging economic news, which means that revenues will be stronger.

Did he share this news with voters?

Of course not. Measure A would have lost in a landslide.

City Councilman Bernard C. Parks said that when politicians send mixed signals, it's not surprising that people don't trust a word of what they say.

"Hey, an epiphany. Money fell from the heavens and it's only half that bad," Parks said of the shrinking projected deficit.

Parks, by the way, says the budget gap is real, and could get worse after Villaraigosa leaves office because of scheduled raises agreed to on his watch. But Parks thinks it's more important to cut costs than to raise revenue.

If it were up to him, the city would contract out some services. And it would negotiate tougher contracts that call for bigger contributions from employees on current and retirement healthcare, as well as pensions. Some of those very things were suggested Friday in a financial report from Santana.

Parks supported Measure A when it was proposed, but quickly reconsidered.

"I thought it was a good idea until I began to research it," he said, arguing that he didn't see a good enough argument that it was viable or the best strategy for raising new revenue. He said he cautioned city officials against "sky is falling" scare tactics, of which the public has grown weary.

"Somebody pulled this tax out of their ear, someone put it on the ballot, and other folks in the back room are saying the numbers are better than we thought," Parks said. "But let's not tell anybody, so if we get passage, we'll just have more money."

Maybe the "A" in Measure A stood for "amateur," because that's how the entire sloppy affair was handled. And all five mayoral candidates, by the way, insisted Measure A wasn't necessary.

On Friday, I tried to get to the bottom of it all with Villaraigosa.

"The mayor is not available to speak with you today," said a spokesman who argued that there was no deception on the mayor's part, but instead a gradually improving budget picture.

Of course he's not available. He's still trying to figure out how to spin the mess he helped create so he can walk away wearing as little of the stink as possible.

Not that politics as usual is reason enough for people to drop out, turn away and surrender their vote.

It's all the more reason to rise up and storm the gates.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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