By Susan Shelley, April 24, 2015
Elected officials typically don’t have much in common with Harry Houdini unless they end up in handcuffs, but in Los Angeles County they’re about to conjure up a sales tax increase with a trick that would deceive Houdini himself.
The sales tax in Los Angeles County is already 9 percent, one and a half percentage points higher than the statewide sales tax. That’s because L.A. County voters approved three separate half-cent sales tax increases to fund transportation projects: Proposition A in 1980, Proposition C in 1990, and Measure R in 2008. A fourth increase, Measure J, failed to win approval in 2012, falling just a little short of the two-thirds vote required to raise taxes in California.
But the campaign is on to try again. On Wednesday, the organization Move LA held a community forum to promote another half-cent hike in the sales tax for transportation projects. Mayor Eric Garcetti was the keynote speaker.
In Sacramento, the legislature is currently considering two measures that would quietly remove some obstacles to passing the tax hike.
Current state law says local governments may add their own sales taxes to the statewide rate of 7.5 percent, but the local sales taxes may not total more than 2 percentage points, for a maximum of 9.5. Senate Bill 767 would lift that limit to allow a new half-cent sales tax increase in L.A. County, where cities including San Fernando and Santa Monica are already at the maximum 2 percent over the statewide rate.
A separate measure, Assembly Constitutional Amendment 4, would change the state constitution to allow local transportation taxes to pass with just 55 percent of the vote instead of two-thirds.
ACA 4 needs a two-thirds vote in both the Assembly and the state Senate to get on the ballot, and then it needs a simple majority to pass. But here’s the trick: If it passes, it would apply immediately to any local transportation tax measure submitted to the voters in the same election. So if the new half-cent sales tax for transportation was on the same ballot, it wouldn’t need two-thirds to pass — 55 percent would be enough.
There could be more trickery thanks to two new laws. The 2016 election will be the first in which voters will be allowed to register on Election Day. And it will be the first election for new vote-by-mail rules that allow ballots to be counted even if they arrive up to three days late, as long as they’re postmarked before the polls close.
Magical things can happen to absentee and provisional ballots in the three days following an election. Sometimes they levitate.
The half-cent sales tax hike that officials have nicknamed Measure R2 could raise an estimated $90 billion by borrowing all the future revenue from a 45-year tax increase. Measure R was a 30-year tax increase, and it raised about $36 billion.
“Our transportation infrastructure program represents the nation’s largest public works program,” Mayor Garcetti said recently.
So it’s a jobs program. You pay the tax, but can you get one of those jobs? Not unless you’re in the right union. Metro has signed a project labor agreement that covers every transportation project built with Measure R funds.
And now Metro is getting into the business of housing near transit corridors. Last month the Metro board voted to study the idea of putting $10 million of your transportation taxes into a “Countywide Transit Oriented Affordable Housing loan fund” and selling Metro-owned land at a discount to developers who will build affordable housing.
Metro board director Jacquelyn Dupont-Walker said the transit agency must “work closely with cities and with community stakeholders to guide responsible development that preserves and creates opportunities for all.”
There’s a further hint of Metro’s plan for trackside living in the agency’s recent report on converting the Orange Line busway to rail. It’s not worth the minimum $1.2 billion cost, the agency concluded, until more “density is concentrated near transit.”
Watch in amazement as your transportation tax dollars are transformed into a jobs program for union construction workers and a housing program for low-income residents.
It’s a great trick, unless you’re trying to get somewhere.