Opinion L.A.

Observations and provocations
from The Times' Opinion staff

« Previous Post | Opinion L.A. Home | Next Post »

Decoding the March 8 ballot: Think measure L for Libraries, M for Marijuana and N for No-good-reason

December 21, 2010 |  7:16 pm

The March 8 Los Angeles city ballot will include 10 measures. Or maybe 11, if the City Council changes its mind and reinstates the troublesome K. And by the way, is that Measure K, Proposition K or Charter Amendment K? Don't worry about it. If it ends up on the ballot, it will just be K.

Here they are, with a bit of background, and the names of those designated to write the pro and con ballot arguments. If there were a contest for most ballot arguments written, Councilwoman Jan Perry would win the derby.

G. Charter Amendment: Adds a new (lower) pension tier for new police and fire recruits.

Why “G”? It’s the next letter available after A through F, which were used this year in elections in other Los Angeles County jurisdictions. But it may as well stand for “Gee, haven’t we seen this before?” Here’s some language from 2001 for the argument for Charter Amendment A. That’s the ballot measure that created the higher pension tier that is now causing the city such financial anxiety and which this measure seeks to cut off:

“Charter Amendment A will allow the City to restructure the existing Fire and Police Pension System to reduce costs to the City without reducing benefits. An actuarial study shows that the City should save $196 million in the first five years. After that, additional cost savings are expected to continue for another five to ten years.”

Those efficiencies were supposed to pay for new, richer annual benefits -– up to 90% of salary at retirement for officers who had served 33 years. It must have sounded like a good idea at the time. The ballot argument was signed by, among others, then-Mayor Richard Riordan and then-Police Chief Bernard C. Parks. No one submitted an argument against it. The measure was endorsed by The Times.

This year’s ballot arguments in favor of G, which would roll back some of those benefits, are being written by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and council President Eric Garcetti. Once again, no one asked to write opposing arguments.

Here’s the proposed charter language

Find measures H-Q after the jump>>


H. Charter Amendment. Restrictions on campaign contributions by contract bidders.

Why “H”? It harks back to the major city campaign ethics ballot measure, 1990’s Proposition H. So, H for -- well -- ethics.

In earlier charter amendments, voters blocked lobbyists and contractors from donating to city candidates. This measure would extend the ban to anyone even bidding on a city contract, as long as the contract is valued at $100,000 or more and requires City Council approval. The ban extends as well to major subcontractors. It also penalizes gifts and contributions to city decision-makers by bond underwriting firms. And it boosts the size of the city’s public matching funds for candidates who choose to accept public funding and abide by spending restrictions.

Arguments in favor: Council President Eric Garcetti and Councilman Jose Huizar

Arguments against: Councilman Greig Smith

Proposed charter language

Ballot title and question

Now for I, J and K, which perhaps should be D,W and P, as these charter amendments are intended to make things work at the Department of Water and Power.

I.Charter amendment. DWP Office of Public Accountability and Ratepayer Advocate.

If passed, this measure would establish a new office inside the DWP, presumably to be able to tell ratepayers that their money is being properly spent. If this got on the ballot as a voter initiative, it might have looked more like the measure some ratepayer activists sought -– a board selected and answerable to, at least in part, neighborhood councils. But as with virtually all city ballot measures each year, it was put on the ballot by the City Council and provides for a board selected by the mayor and confirmed by the council. Voters must decide whether it was improved or watered down, and whether it adds new oversight or just new bureaucracy.

Ballot title and question

Charter language

Arguments in favor: Council President Eric Garcetti, Councilman Greig Smith

Arguments against: None

J. Charter amendment.  DWP revenue transfers.

This measure originated in the year’s major City Hall fiasco –- a, shall we say, disagreement over how much “surplus” money the DWP was to transfer to the city’s general fund, and whether the DWP had the right or power to hold off on the transfer without first squeezing approval for an electricity rate hike out of the council. The city’s crippled general fund relies heavily on those transfers, which are often characterized as being in lieu of the utility tax that a private operator would have to pay to the city; or in the alternative as the premium that city taxpayers get for owning their utility. It’s worth noting that city lawyers are studying whether any DWP transfer can ever be made to the general fund again without a two-thirds vote of the electorate now that California voters on Nov. 2 adopted Proposition 26. That measure was read by most to require a two-thirds vote of the Legislature to adopt fees, but the fine print also restricted local fees without a popular vote.

Ballot title and question

Charter language

K.Charter Amendment. This is the one that Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa vetoed and that the council on Dec. 15 failed to override.

Technically, Special K remains in limbo through the first week of January, when the council can take it up again. But it won’t. The measure would have allowed the City Council to fire the general manager of the DWP and members of the Board of Water and Power Commission. That’s a job that under the current charter falls to the mayor.

Charter language

L. Charter amendment. Now the letters (although not necessarily the ballot measures) start making sense. Think “L” for “libraries.”

In this year’s strained budget, Villaraigosa submitted a spending plan that cut where it could, including two days a week at many city libraries. Library workers and patrons rallied to restore the hours and came up with this measure –- which adds no funding to reopen library doors but instead mandates that a higher percentage of the city’s property tax revenue go toward libraries instead of needs that may (or may not) be even more pressing in any given year.

Ballot title and question

Charter language

Arguments in favor: Councilmen Tom LaBonge, Bernard C. Parks

Arguments against: Joyce Dillard

M. Ballot proposition. M-for-Marijuana.

This one isn’t a charter amendment, but rather a tax, which to be adopted must be approved by two-thirds of voters. It would purport to impose a tax of $50 for every $1,000 in gross receipts received at medical marijuana dispensaries. Except, wait. It would include the words “recognizing that the sale of marijuana is illegal.” So it would authorize, sort of, a tax on illegal sales? And if medical marijuana is a pharmaceutical, it can’t be taxed -- right?

Here’s some helpful advice from the city attorney on how much Los Angeles can expect to reap from a medical marijuana tax:

“Accordingly, based on the illegality of the sale of marijuana and on the exemption from business taxes or fees for organizations that operate on a not for profit basis, the proposed measure would be of little or no effect.”

OK, good thing that one’s on the ballot.

Ordinance language.

Ballot title and question.

Arguments in favor: Councilwoman Janice Hahn

Arguments against: Councilwoman Jan Perry, Councilman Bernard C. Parks

N. Charter amendment. Maybe we can remember measure N as N-for-No-good-reason, because it’s hard justify this measure being on the ballot.

It would revoke two City Charter provisions on campaign finance, both of which were invalidated by recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions. In other words, they are unconstitutional. They’re nullities. The city Ethics Commission, City Council and city attorney have vowed not to try to enforce them. So City Hall can annotate the charter provisions to make clear that they are no longer enforceable. Or they can, and did, make an unnecessarily long city ballot even longer by asking voters to do their administrative cleanup work for them.

Just for spice, please note that the now-void campaign finance measures applied to L.A. Unified School District board elections as well as Los Angeles city elections, so instead of just tacking this measure onto the city ballot, it has to be added to all those voting areas that are within the LAUSD but not the city.

Ballot title and question.

Ballot arguments? No one bothered, pro or con.

O. A tax proposition. O-for Oil.

This one is a local version of the oil severance fee that is paid in every oil-producing state but California. City officials estimate it would raise about $4 million from local producers, which is about $4 million more than the city attorney says the marijuana tax would raise. Reminder: the current budget deficit is $485 million. Two-thirds needed to pass.

Ordinance language.

Argument for: Councilwoman Jan Perry

Argument against: Bill LaMarr, Stop the LA Energy Tax

We’ll get around to reporting more on it, but in the meantime see the story in the Los Angeles Business Journal.

P. Charter amendment. Budget contingency reserve.

This is the money any responsible business or public entity needs to have on hand for unforeseen circumstances. Earlier this year, many City Council members appeared ready to adopt a budget with a reserve of almost zero rather than agree to layoffs or furloughs. More fiscally conservative council members insisted that this charter amendment go on the ballot to ensure that the council can never again play with that choice. The question is: Is this just another form of ballot-box budgeting that limits the government’s budget flexibility, or is it a necessary enforced program, much like the state’s Proposition 58 –- and its various other “rainy day fund” mandates?

Ballot title and question.

Charter language.

Argument for: Councilwoman Jan Perry

Argument against: None

Q. Charter amendment. Q-for-question -- Why, again, do we have to have a stunning 10 measures on the March 8 ballot? Including this one?

Q asks the people of Los Angeles to answer the important question:

Shall the Charter be amended to: (1) expand the automatic civil service exemptions to include Deputy Chiefs of Fire; (2) limit the number of qualified applicants testing for civil service positions to an adequate number to prevent examinations of unnecessarily large candidate pools; (3) eliminate the requirement for certifying all eligible candidates for appointment to a civil service position when the candidates' scores are not reachable or when no hiring is taking place; (4) clarify and standardize the probationary period for police officers to accurately reflect its application to sworn officers from the Airport, Harbor and General Services Departments; (5) increase the length of emergency appointments to no longer than one year; and (6) extend the amount of time retirees may work from 90 to 120 days without increasing pension benefits?

Ballot title and question.

Charter language.

Arguments in favor: Councilman Dennis Zine

Arguments opposed: none

--Robert Greene


Los Angeles Times Endorsements

Voter guide: March 8 Los Angeles Election


Comments ()