Foes of transit sales tax extension face uphill battle

Lisa Korbatov, right, and Rosa Miranda of the Bus Riders Union hold up blank checks in an effort to highlight Measure J's corporate sponsors and beneficiaries.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

A small group of opponents to a three-decade transportation sales tax extension on next month’s ballot huddled this week for their first news conference, a thinly attended event in a Hyde Park parking lot.

Only two television stations showed up — one from USC — signaling the kind of David versus Goliath battle they face.

The Coalition to Defeat Measure J included a smattering of groups with accumulated grievances against the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Among them were bus riders who feel shortchanged by the agency’s heavy spending on rail projects and Beverly Hills school officials battling part of a subway route beneath their city.

That same day, the head of the Yes on Measure J effort was hurrying to pick up yet another financial donation and was gearing up for a television advertising blitz to promote the proposed tax extension.


“This has been a very good week,” said campaign leader Matt Szabo, a former top aide to Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa who is also running for a seat on the City Council. “We’ve gotten a lot of money for J and a … nice set of [newspaper] editorials.”

As the campaign to extend the half-cent tax for an extra 30 years heats up, the strategies and fundraising efforts between the two groups could not be more different.

The organized opposition is a relatively low-budget, grass-roots effort consisting mostly of groups highly critical of Metro and only a few elected officials, including county Supervisors Don Knabe and Michael D. Antonovich, who also chairs Metro’s board of directors, and City Councilman Bernard C. Parks. The proponents, meanwhile, are a well-heeled array of civic leaders, business interests and union members who are fueling the campaign with money and support.

Recently released campaign disclosure statements show that Yes on Measure J received $171,000 through Sept. 30, with the largest donation of $100,000 coming from the shopping center giant Westfield, which owns a mall in Century City at a proposed stop for the Westside subway extension.

But Szabo and other pro-J organizers said that they have since raised far more than that, and that they will have enough to fund a spate of television spots in the two weeks leading up to the Nov. 6 election. On their website, they highlight big-name donors like Eli Broad and Anschutz Entertainment Group Inc. as providing “major funding,” and Szabo said they hope to raise at least $2.2 million to $3 million.

“What I’m doing today in between meetings to collect money for J is we’re shooting our ads, traversing the county and doing that as well,” Szabo said Tuesday. “We’ll have enough to certainly be up on TV for the last two weeks.”

The Coalition to Defeat Measure J isn’t likely to run any television ads because it lacks the funds for a series of commercials. And when asked how much money the group had raised for its campaign, Damien Goodmon of the Crenshaw Subway Coalition simply responded: “We’re grass roots.”

Measure R was the original half-cent transportation tax for 30 years that voters passed in 2008. It is estimated to bring in about $36 billion over its life span. Measure J would remove the sunset provision and extend the tax another 30 years, until 2069, or until voters decide to end it.

Voters only narrowly approved Measure R, and the question is whether these opposition groups will have enough reach to help derail Measure J.

Villaraigosa has championed Measure J, saying it would allow transportation officials to borrow against future tax revenues and speed up construction of several transit projects, including the Westside subway extension and a downtown rail connection.

Denny Zane, head of the pro-J group Move LA, said he thinks voters will respond to the message that Measure J will both help fuel employment and improve transit.

The strategy is to sell voters on “jobs, jobs, jobs … jobs and traffic relief in as many different mediums as we can,” Zane said.

But critics of Measure J say Metro has already fumbled its handling of much of the Measure R money on ill-conceived projects that benefit contractors and developers more than the public and by prioritizing rail over the more widely used bus system.

“Measure J needs corporate backers with deep pockets, because Metro’s reputation among regular people at the community level is tarnished,” said Eric Romann of the Bus Riders Union. “Despite all the money and all the hype behind Measure J, we believe voters of L.A. County will see this proposal for what it is, a blank check for corporate welfare at the expense of the well-being of local communities.”

Romann conceded that the opposition doesn’t “have anywhere near the resources that the Yes on J campaign has,” but he hopes a committed army of organizers can turn the vote. His group has been working the phones to reach voters and will continue to do so until the election. They also plan to be at events like Taste of Soul this weekend in South L.A. to try to sway voters.

The informal coalition held another news conference Thursday with Antonovich, who as chairman of Metro’s board is in the minority in his opposition to the tax extension. At the news conference, Antonovich equated Measure J to a “shakedown” and said it “does not meet the bus needs, the rail needs, the taxpayer needs, and it locks in funding until 2069, when all of us are going to be in the local cemetery.”

Recent polling by the Yes on J group suggests the vote could be close, with 68% of likely voters in favor of the initiative and 22% against. Passage requires approval from at least two-thirds of the ballots cast.

Times staff writer David Zahniser contributed to this report.