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L.A. voters make bold bets with new taxes for transit, homelessness

L.A. voters make bold bets with new taxes for transit, homelessness
Homeless people and their tents on Stanford Avenue on skid row this week in downtown Los Angeles. (Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles voters were in an especially giving mood.

Four major tax measures, clustered near the bottom of the ballot, sailed to victory in Los Angeles on election day, mostly by dizzying margins.

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Voters embraced $94 million per year for parks, $1.2 billion to house the city's homeless, $3.3 billion for community college facilities and a stunning $120 billion to pay for subways, light rail lines and other transit projects over 40 years. Those measures, backers say, will help Los Angeles tackle two of its most intractable problems — traffic and homelessness — and potentially reshape the region.

For L.A.'s mostly Democratic political leaders, despondent over losing both the presidency and the battle for Congress, the success of the four measures was welcome if bittersweet. Unofficial returns had the countywide transportation tax passing with nearly 70% of ballots cast, the county park tax with more than 73%, the community college bond with 75% and the city housing bond with 76%.

When compared to the national results, Los Angeles has become "an oasis" in a dry and unforgiving political desert, said Councilman Mike Bonin, who campaigned for the transit and homeless measures.

"Voters saw that we have big, scary problems … and they were more than willing to invest in solving those problems," said Bonin, who represents part of the Westside.

The electoral success was far from a sure thing. Los Angeles City Council President Herb Wesson had feared from the beginning that, with such a crowded and complicated ballot, one or more of the tax proposals would go down to defeat. That's what happened in the 2008 presidential election, when voters embraced three tax increases but rejected a fourth  — one devoted to paying for gang intervention programs in the city.

Winning approval of every local tax on the ballot "never happens," said Wesson, who stumped heavily for passage of Measure HHH, the homeless housing bond.

"This is a coup," he said Wednesday.

The results also came as a surprise to Richard Close, president of the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Assn., who frequently argues against local tax hikes. Close, who endorsed the homeless housing bond but remained silent on the rest, said voters were ready to take action on traffic and homelessness.

"They want change, even if it costs them more money," he said.

One political expert attributed Tuesday's results, in part, to the one-sided nature of the local ballot measure campaigns.

Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC, said Mayor Eric Garcetti and his allies succeeded in isolating the influence of the groups who fought Measure M, the half-cent sales tax hike for transportation. The other three measures, he added, had little organized opposition.

"If voters only hear one side of the story, they're a lot more likely to believe it," Schnur said.

The four-for-four sweep of the tax measures will free up money for a vast menu of construction projects.

Measure HHH, the homeless bond measure, is expected to produce enough funds to pay for thousands of below-market residential units. Those homes, constructed in partnership with private developers, would offer on-site services such as substance abuse counseling or mental health services.

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At the Los Angeles Community College District, Measure CC will help pay for earthquake retrofits and other repairs at nine campuses. And money from Measure M, the half-cent sales tax hike, would go toward dozens of projects, including one of the biggest public works initiatives on the drawing board right now: two 8.8-mile tunnels through the Sepulveda Pass, connecting the Westside with the San Fernando Valley by rail.

Still, each of those initiatives could quickly run into trouble. Metro is already behind schedule and over budget on a downtown subway line aimed at linking rail routes to Long Beach, Pasadena, East Los Angeles and Santa Monica. Construction of subsidized housing can take several years, with private developers working to acquire land and cobbling together city, state and even federal funding. And the community college found itself mired in contracting woes the last time voters backed new finding measures.

A Times investigation in 2011 found that the college district had wasted tens of millions of dollars as it built new facilities using publicly approved bond money. Then-State Controller John Chiang later identified $140 million in questionable spending stemming from the construction work.

Community College board president Scott Svonkin said the district installed new safeguards in the wake of Chiang's report, to ensure that the awarding of construction contracts is more transparent and competitive. "We're doing things differently today than we did six years ago," he added.

Svonkin said that before the election, he was nervous that voters would recoil at having to decide so many tax measures — rejecting all of them in response. But voters from both parties showed they wanted to improve their city, he said.

"This investment will change the face of Los Angeles," said Svonkin, whose board went on record supporting all four tax measures. "It will make our city so much better and so much more livable."

One Measure M backer argued that the push to have so many taxes paid off.

"We used to say fortune favored the bold," said Denny Zane, executive director of Move LA, a non-profit organization that advocates for public transit investment. "Now we know. Voters favor the bold."

Schnur said the strength of the region's economy might provide another explanation for Tuesday's tax sweep.

Employment is much stronger than it was in 2008 and 2012, two years when voters rejected local tax measures, he said. This year, voters were feeling more economically comfortable — and understood that the tax measures would not result in "dramatic and immediate changes in their community."

"They were willing to make long-term investments, even if they're not going to see the results for a while," he said.

Twitter: @davidzahniser

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