And November just got interesting again—Villargaigosa’s Measure R extension

So just when Santorum leaves and I’m faced with the possibility that reading about politics won’t be interesting enough to keep me away from doing real work (gasp! work!), LA’s mayor decides he’s going back to the ballot box to ask voters to make Measure R, a half-cent sales tax measure passed for 30 years back in 2008, permanent.

In Tony’s favor, it never hurts to ask, particularly when one is not running for re-election. For most US mayors who want to build more transit, the writing is on Belshazzar’s wall: we’re not likely to get a new transportation deal in DC at all before the November election. Unless something changes there–as in, we have a big, Goldwater-style doomsday for the GOP—if we get a deal after November it’s likely to be the Republicans’ deal. And they don’t want a federal infrastructure bank, and they don’t like sending money to California.

A couple journos called my Suburban Lair yesterday to talk about whether the Measure R extension has a chance of passing. I don’t think I gave them anything useful. Los Angeles County has had six or seven–I can’t remember–ballot box measures for sales taxes between 1975 and today, and three of them have passed: Prop A in 1980, Prop C in 1993, and Measure R in 2008. So based on the county’s history, it could go either way.

When Measure R was on the ballot, I spent time talking to both Democrats and Republicans about the measure, and among the Republicans, the fact that the measure would sunset seemed like a big deal to them. I can’t imagine they would be happy with the extension.

But if there is one thing that Mayor Tony’s crew knows how to do, it’s campaign. They are very good at it, and they got some key experience with Measure R, and they also have a pretty powerful network of businesses and nonprofits that threw their support behind the “Yes on Measure R” campaign–like most of the LA County museums. It seems likely that that coalition is still in place and readily activated for another initiative.

However, the continuation of the tax is a big deal, and the rationale–that they want to make sure they can borrow against the tax–has an assumption that will probably worry conservatives in the County: the fact that they aren’t comfortable borrowing against the tax that will sunset suggests that they know full well the tax as it is can’t support the existing project list without very, very low cost federal financing of the 30/10 plan. There are always cost over-runs, and it’s really really important that people not underestimate how expensive the subway to the sea is going to be. By releasing that sunset, the pressure to avoid cost over-runs goes away a bit. And that’s a problem for many conservative voters who see removing that constraint as a license to do what governments do: take on too much financial risk and manage projects poorly.