Los Angeles County officials are eyeing a new income tax on millionaires to help address the region's growing crisis of homelessness, but one of the county board's three liberal members broke ranks to at least temporarily halt the push.
County supervisors were slated to vote Tuesday to lobby for state legislation that would give counties the authority to collect a new tax on personal income over $1 million to pay for housing programs and services to combat homelessness.
Supervisor Hilda Solis raised concerns about the methodology of a poll that gauged voters' support for the potential measure and the annual countywide count of homeless people.
After a lengthy debate, the supervisors postponed the question by a week.
City and county officials have been mulling the idea of asking voters for a tax increase to pay for new housing and services intended to get people off the streets.
The most recent count by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority found nearly 47,000 people on the streets and in shelters, a 5.7% increase from the year before.
County officials voted earlier this year to allocate $150 million for housing programs and other initiatives to reduce homelessness, but say nearly $500 million a year would be needed to make a significant dent in the problem, not including the cost of building new housing.
A recent poll by the county found that 76% of the likely voters polled were supportive of a millionaire's tax — enough to meet the two-thirds majority required to impose a new tax.
They were more receptive to the high-income tax than to other options presented, including increasing sales or property taxes or taxing marijuana sales to pay for homeless programs.
A similar "millionaires tax" passed by voters statewide in 2004, raises money for mental health services through a personal income tax surcharge of 1% on taxable income above $1 million. The revenues — about $1.4 billion statewide this year — are collected by the state and distributed to counties.
County officials estimate that another such tax could raise $243 million a year for housing and services for the homeless in Los Angeles County.
But the county does not now have the authority to raise income taxes and would need a change in state law to do it.
Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Sheila Kuehl want the county to start pushing for a budget trailer bill that would grant the county the authority in time to place a measure on the ballot in November.
The deadline for the board to place initiatives on the November ballot is Aug. 9. The budget bill will be adopted by June 15 and signed by June 31, giving county officials time to decide whether to place a measure on the ballot.
The two Republicans on the board, Michael D. Antonovich and Don Knabe, expressed skepticism about pursuing a tax increase.
Solis, in a surprise move, joined them. She said she had not been provided with a detailed breakdown of demographics of the people polled and had not received a breakdown of the results for each supervisorial district until Monday night.
She also contested the findings of the homeless count, saying she thought it had underestimated the problem in her east-county district and was concerned that the area would get less funding from a potential tax measure as a result.
"As we move forward, I don't want the first district to be short-charged," she said.
Solis said afterward that she wanted the county to do its "due diligence"
"The missing demographic data from the polling is just one piece of the information we are requesting," she said. "We also need to gauge the political will of the governor and the Legislature. If L.A. County moves forward, it needs to be in an informed and concerted way."
Kuehl and Ridley-Thomas, along with county staff, pushed for a vote to move ahead with pursuing legislation that would at least potentially leave the door open for a November measure.
Ridley-Thomas argued that a delay would send a "message of equivocation."
"We've been discussing the issues of homelessness with intensity for the better part of this year," he said. "... A lot of eyes are on us and expecting us to do what we should do."
Advocates urged the board to push ahead with the tax initiative.
"We've never had this chance before, and I'm worried that we're not going to have it again if we don't seize it," Greg Spiegel, former top homelessness policy advisor to Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, now with Inner City Law Center. "If we don't seize it, the problem is going to get worse."
Several proponents also pointed out that although overall homelessness had surged from last year, homelessness among veterans and families -- two groups that have been specifically targeted by county programs in recent months -- decreased.
"When you put resources in -- as you're about to, I hope -- we do see decreases," said Ruth Schwartz, executive director of Shelter Partnership. "You're responsible for the decrease in homeless families."
The supervisors took an initial vote in which the proposal to seek state approval was voted down. Kuehl and Ridley-Thomas voted in favor of the proposal, Antonovich and Knabe voted no and Solis abstained. But the supervisors then voted to reconsider and place it on the agenda for next week.