Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa decried the hurdles involved in raising city taxes during a discussion about the sources of the city's huge deficit, which will grow to nearly $700 million in July.
In an interview with National Public Radio published over the weekend, the two-thirds vote it takes to increase sales taxes was a top peeve: "California cities are constrained by various propositions which limit your ability to raise revenues," Villaraigosa told NPR's Guy Raz.
"You can't raise taxes," Raz replied.
"Without a two-thirds vote of the people, and so that revenue opportunities just are a lot more difficult to try to take advantage of," Villaraigosa said.
Strangely, Los Angeles County has a sales tax that is among the highest in the state (8.75 percent) chiefly because Villaraigosa himself campaigned for a half-cent increase in sales tax in 2008. Amazingly, it was successful, and Measure R passed with more than the requisite two-thirds vote.
But does that countywide tax contribute to the city's general fund? Not primarily. The expected $40 billion windfall will go to building out the region's transit infrastructure, including light rail and, most importantly, Villaraigosa's legacy project, a "subway to the sea."
That's all fine and good if you agree that we need a subway to the sea and other light rail lines. What's strange here is that the mayor is blaming his inability to raise taxes when, in fact, he's been very good at it.
Some might even say Villaraigosa's recently approved proposal to begin increasing Department of Water and Power fees six percent is somewhat of a tax increase.
DWP interim General Manager S. David Freeman even argued that if the DWP board and City Council didn't approve the increases, the $147 million in annual DWP contributions to the general fund could be in jeopardy.
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In other words, Freeman confirmed what we all suspected was behind the mayor's fortuitously timed "carbon surcharge" proposal to continue to raise city power rates by as much as 28.4 percent: DWP customers will be helping to keep the city afloat at a time when it desperately needs the cash.
Meanwhile, in the same interview, Villaraigosa said he's out of options for patching up the deficit. Despite calls for thousands of layoffs, department closures and other budget-tightening measures, the mayor seems to have thrown up his hands.
"There aren't a lot of options here," he said. "We have contracts with our employees that we have to abide by. So unless they agree to sharing in the sacrifice in these tough times, I won't have a lot of options."
There's always taxes.