September 29, 2008 - From the Aug-Sept, 2008 issue

Assemblymember Mike Feuer's AB 2321 Paves the Way for $40 Billion L.A. Sales Tax-Measure R

The November election is rife with critical issues. Locally, a $40 billion L.A. County congestion relief funding stream is on the ballot and a super majority is necessary to approve it. Perhaps, given our gridlock, no county ballot initiative is more critical than this half-cent sales tax initiative-Measure R. In the following MIR interview, Assemblymember Mike Feuer (D-Los Angeles), the author of AB 2321, which enabled Measure R to appear on the local ballot, details some of the specifics of the sales tax, including how the money will be spent and why the proponents of the sales tax measure must not fail November 4th.


Mike Feuer

The following interview appeared in the MIR insert included in the September 2008 issue of The Planning Report.

Last January you addressed a Move L.A. Conference of regional labor, business, and environmental leaders, who had come together to assess the need for new local funding sources for congestion relief projects in Los Angeles County. AB 2321 would seem to be the product of that conference. What were the challenges of shepherding AB 2321 through the Legislature?

I introduced a package of bills this session focused on empowering local jurisdictions to take control of their transportation futures. The most important initiative, and the one that's pending now, is AB 2321. AB 2321 enables the county of Los Angeles to place Measure R, a half-cent sales tax increase to fund a crucial array of transportation initiatives, on the November ballot. State law places a cap on what a local county's sales tax level can be. If one wishes to exceed that cap, then state legislation is required. L.A. County is required, because of this law, to go to the Legislature for this authority.

The bill made its way through both houses, but it has been an exceptionally challenging piece of legislation because $40 billion in transportation funding is at stake. With all that money on the table, the legislation engendered a great deal of discussion and some controversy. But we are at the finish line. The bill has passed both houses, and we now await a signature from the Governor (Ed. note: The governor has since signed the bill), with whom I spoke about this bill recently.

What will happen if the Governor signs the bill by the end of September?

Then Measure R will be placed on the November ballot in L.A. County, and there will be a very vigorous campaign to pass that measure. Many of us are discussing it publicly already. Just last night I spoke to a neighborhood council about how important this initiative is to alleviate traffic congestion. Last week I spoke at a conference with environmental leaders about the significance of Measure R to improving our region's air quality and land use planning. A number of us-Zev Yaroslavsky, Richard Katz, myself, and others-spoke about the importance of this measure to our regional economy and broader quality of life at the L.A. Business Council's Housing Summit a few days ago. There will be a media campaign, of course, and much more to come. What is at stake is an enormous benefit to our region: A subway moving west; the completion of the Exposition Line from Downtown to Santa Monica, the light rail line; the North-South Orange Line, as well as the one that moves east to west; an extension of the Gold Line that goes to Whittier Boulevard on the Eastside; an extension of the Gold Line that moves beyond Pasadena on its way to Claremont in the San Gabriel Valley; dramatic increases and improvements in bus service ($8 billion over 30 years for bus service alone); and very significant local improvements to streets, roads, sound walls, and so forth from what is called the "local return" component of Measure R. In short, if the Governor signs AB 2321, we will have an initiative of historic significance on the November ballot here in Los Angeles.

Measure R, if it reaches the ballot, will need a super majority vote to win passage. Address the politics of passing not only Measure R, but any transportation-funding bill requiring a super majority in a metropolis the size of Los Angeles County.

The politics are always going to be very challenging. First, when you require a two-thirds vote, you obviously have to meet a very high threshold. The most significant issue for those of us who support Measure R is going to be convincing a public that is always going to be skeptical of government that this money is going to be used in the way it's intended. One of the most important weapons in our arsenal is the fact that the public will see a very specific list of the projects to be funded by Measure R on the ballot before they vote. That is different than other measures. Voters will be able to identify what projects will matter to them locally-see the amount of money attributed to those projects, see an approximate completion date for those projects, and then decide. That is going to help the campaign a great deal.

Now opponents of Measure R have argued that funding should be allocated from this measure on a per capita basis. Measure R allocates funds based on need. I strongly support the idea of allocating funds based on need and reject the idea that public funding should be allocated purely on a per capita basis. To do that is to do transportation planning by calculator. You just see how many people are in a certain place and put money there, regardless of the transportation needs of that community or the region in general. It's an extremely shortsighted approach, and I'm optimistic that voters will see that a need-based initiative is where we need to go.

Turning to the state capital and Legislature, how challenging was it to win the votes necessary to secure legislative approval for L.A. County to put Measure R on the ballot? How did you win sufficient support from the 80 assemblymembers and the 40 state senators to authorize Measure R for the November ballot?

There are about three dozen legislators from Los Angeles County, between the Senate and the Assembly, in Sacramento. Identifying consensus among us was the sweet spot in this discussion and it was very challenging. It required a great deal of input from many different stakeholders. In such a process there will always be a great deal of give and take. Ultimately, we've achieved something that meets the needs of every county legislator's constituents. When it came to the final vote in Sacramento, there was not unanimity, but it was pretty darn close. We had a tremendous amount of support, including from Republicans, on the floor of the Assembly where I serve. I really appreciated that, and it demonstrated how close we had come to reaching consensus. Every member knows Measure R would fund high priority projects of specific relevance to their districts. At the same time, however, this is not a measure that's laden with pork. At the end of the day, this bill, and the projects Measure R will build, accommodates L.A.'s essential transportation goals.

Let's turn to Measure R's allocation formula: 15 cents on the dollar goes to local returns, 35 cents goes toward rail projects, and 20 cents for bus projects. Why the aforementioned allocation formula?

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35 percent goes to rail construction, 5 percent for rail operation, 20 percent for bus operation, 20 percent for highway improvements, 15 percent for local return, and then there is 3 percent for Metrolink.

Recognizing that this is a once in a generation allocation of funds, our most important objective needs to be building big projects that otherwise could never be accomplished. Therefore 35 percent goes for essential new rail projects and roughly 20 percent for major highway improvements. In addition, unlike other major initiatives to build capital projects, Measure R provides operating funds to make the system work.

The allocation formula also takes into account that we have an integrated transportation system in this region. For example, fixed rail will satisfy tremendous needs, and it will reshape the way land use development occurs in Los Angeles County in a very positive way, but it is not going to meet the needs of every transit dependent rider. Bus service is going to continue to be an extremely important component of this system. That's why 20 percent is allocated for bus operations. At the neighborhood council meeting I attended last night a questioner stood up and said that she rides the bus system and is a big fan, but the streets are in horrible disrepair and it makes her ride very uncomfortable. The local return aspect of Measure R will go a long way to fix streets and make bus rides smooth, as opposed to how jarring they can be right now.

Is there enough support from the county's political and civic leaders to give you confidence that a two-thirds vote November 4th is probable?

I'm very confident that we have the capacity to win. This is an unprecedented moment in recent political history, with a huge, energized electorate expected in November. We also have an extraordinary coalition assembling in support of Measure R. State leaders and local leaders from across a wide geographic, ethnic, and racial spectrum already are on board. We have strong support from business, labor, the environmental activists and community leaders. We're going to need all of that to pass this measure, precisely because two-thirds is such a high threshold. Denny Zane's name needs to be mentioned here, because Denny has been a tremendous leader in generating support from grassroots advocates to actively support this measure. This broad spectrum of support gives us tremendous potential.

Some in L.A. County contend that Measure R's allocation of funds formula does not meet their needs and they are willing to help defeat the measure in the hopes that they can rewrite it if it comes back again in future years. How can proponents of Measure R, between now and November 4th, grapple with such dissent?

We win the argument based on the merits. Voters will decide on Measure R based much more on their personal experiences than what their elected officials have to say. Voters will consider how much time they spend away from their families while they fight traffic; the poor quality of the air their kids breathe; the fact that plans for work or entertainment often center around traffic congestion; and so on. They will vote very practically, asking whether it will be worth roughly $25 per year to change all that. I'm confident they'll say yes.

As I mentioned earlier, I think voters will reject the main argument of the opponents-that Measure R should have allocated money purely on a per capita allocation. Voters are smarter than that, and, I think, way ahead of politicians in this regard. They will agree that we should be basing the allocation of very scarce transportation funds on the needs of our region.

I also think voters will see through the parochialism that underlies a lot of the opposition. We all breathe the same air. The transportation and air quality needs of our region are not based on an accident of political boundary lines. They are based on the region's needs, the region's air. When a worker travels from the Eastside to the Westside, she doesn't care what political boundaries exist between her home and her destination. She wants a system that can get her from one place to another. Many of those who oppose this measure don't get that. I don't think they can successfully argue that political or jurisdictional boundaries should trump needs.

There will not be an electorate of this quality for years and years, maybe for an entire generation. Voters will recognize that if we miss this opportunity, there is not going to be a similar moment for a long time to come. And getting the degree of consensus we've achieved from such a wide swath of stakeholders is maybe a once in a lifetime accomplishment. The combination of that consensus and the nature of this electorate comes along very rarely. Add to that the polling we've seen, and the resources that will be available-this is going to be an extremely viable campaign, and it's going to win.

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