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MTA Is No Longer a Sacred Cow : Budget: Despite Wilson’s veto of the plan to divert funds to Los Angeles County, legislators say they will try again. Meanwhile, Riordan’s profile in Sacramento rises.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

In 1992, state lawmakers created the Metropolitan Transportation Authority amid optimism that it would spend transportation money more efficiently. Then it was nearly forgotten at the state Capitol. Until this week, when it received more attention than it ever has.

With the transit agency beset with problems, lawmakers, especially Democrats, have increasingly soured on their creation. And this week they were emboldened to raid the MTA’s treasury to help bail out cash-strapped Los Angeles County.

Even though Gov. Pete Wilson said on Wednesday that he vetoed a bill that coupled the proposed five-year, $375-million rescue plan for Los Angeles with aid for Orange County, the fight is likely to be the turning point in relations between Sacramento and the $3-billion-a-year regional transit agency that has been all but sacrosanct in the halls of the Capitol.

“There’s nothing like a budget crisis and a $1.2-billion deficit in Los Angeles County to shake up everything . . . and when that happens there aren’t many sacred cows left,” said labor lobbyist Barry Broad, who represents MTA mechanics.

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Indeed, lawmakers say that when they return from summer break, they plan to renew the fight against MTA and seek to shift transit funds to the county. But while maneuvering over the contentious issue has energized Los Angeles lawmakers, it also raised Mayor Richard Riordan’s low profile in Sacramento.

Though MTA has been criticized over the past three years by a handful of lawmakers, the legislation offered a rare opportunity for them to exercise control over the agency’s purse strings.

Some lawmakers saw the drive to shift funds to the county for health services as the first step toward scuttling rail construction projects, while maintaining current bus service. Others viewed it in more modest terms, as a way to help keep health facilities open and stretch out construction projects by several years.

Whatever prompted their efforts to clip the MTA’s wings, legislators failed to overcome stiff lobbying by Riordan, who spearheaded the drive, and other supporters of the beleaguered transit agency.

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“I think the whole thing comes down to the decibel level of the subway lobby, the big contractors and Mayor Riordan,” said state Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica). “They got a reprieve, but it’s only momentary.”

“The mayor is now directly responsible for the loss of $375 million for county health,” Hayden said. “And the only reason he has done this is to perpetuate the flow of MTA money to pet projects.”

Hayden and other lawmakers say Riordan, who conducted his lobbying effort via telephone calls, including a 30-minute chat with Wilson on Tuesday night, emerged as a major winner in the battle.

But they predict his success will come at a high price because the MTA, which has been plagued by everything from road sinkages to serious safety violations, can expect much more scrutiny from lawmakers, especially an energized Los Angeles legislative delegation.

The mayor’s lobbying--one of the boldest steps taken by the mayor in connection with the MTA--prompted some private unhappiness among his aides, who fretted that their boss was championing the unpopular transit agency.

But Riordan on Wednesday made it clear that his defense of the MTA should not mean that he is absolving the agency of its troubles.

He praised Wilson’s veto, saying it “kept faith with the voters.” That was an apparent reference to two measures approved by county voters to raise sales taxes for transit. In a statement issued by his office, Riordan said: “Given the tough choices--grim and grimmer--the governor made the right decision. At the same time, there is no doubt that the MTA has become a justifiably easy target. The moves in Sacramento underscore the need to get the MTA house in order.”

Riordan contended that the tax shift of $75 million a year for five years from the MTA to the county provided “no incentive for the county to get its budget house in order.” He also warned that the diversion could have jeopardized the MTA’s efforts in Washington to secure $125 million from next year’s federal budget for subway construction.

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In an interview, Riordan insisted that the tax shift would have affected not just the subway but thwarted his efforts to increase bus service for the poor, especially in the inner city.

At a Capitol press conference on Wednesday, Wilson acknowledged Riordan’s influence, saying the mayor--a member of the MTA board--told him that “Los Angeles would suffer dramatically” if he signed the legislation.

Wilson said that a compromise he proposed to set aside $50 million in MTA funds for the county is still on the table as long as legislators are willing to provide budget relief to county governments.

The governor also noted that the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors was split over the legislation. It agreed 3 to 0 to divert the $75 million in transit funds, but Supervisors Gloria Molina and Yvonne Brathwaite Burke abstained.

When they return to Sacramento on Aug. 21, lawmakers are expected to piggyback their Los Angeles relief proposal onto legislation allowing Orange County to take $70 million a year for the next 15 years from its mass transit system.

The Orange County aid is included in SB 75, which Wilson plans to reject. Thus, both cash-strapped counties will need to revive legislation later this summer. One administration source indicated that he expects the proposals to again be piggybacked.

Also, lawmakers expect to revive stalled legislation to make the MTA board an elected panel. And next Tuesday, the state Senate Transportation Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing in Los Angeles in the wake of a giant sinkhole that opened on Hollywood Boulevard as part of a subway construction project.

Transit officials say the flap in Sacramento may have already hurt their efforts in Washington. On Wednesday, the Senate Appropriations Committee’s transportation panel voted to provide only $45 million for the Los Angeles subway project. The House has allocated $125 million.

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Gladstone reported from Sacramento and Simon from Los Angeles.


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