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The Wreck of the Business Tax

Photo by Debra DiPaoloThat was the last time I’d seen such disaster-torn earnestness — until last Friday at City Hall, after the legislative train wreck in the Council Chamber that left the mayor’s long-planned city-business-tax proposal lying on its side with its wheels spinning. It seemed a tremendous derailment of the mayor’s all-time favorite cause.

But there are those, and they include Councilman Mike Feuer, who believe that the cause has actually been won. The mayor didn’t get exactly what he’d wanted — an omnibus proposal on the June ballot. But the city will probably glean from its wreckage all the modifications to the business tax it needs, as an amended proposal wends its way to eventual council enactment.

"Things could get better," Feuer said, "if [the proposal] doesn’t get stuck in committee."

I’ll hazard that nobody, anywhere, understands all the aspects of the city’s business tax. But there is a widespread perception, particularly among such passionate wights as write Wall Street Journal editorials, that L.A.’s impost is only slightly less business-friendly than the Soviet constitution.

Yet if L.A.’s business tax is higher than other large cities’, it’s not by much. And cities with lower business taxes must make up the difference in other areas — ranging from trash-collection fees to personal income taxes.

The mayor’s proposal — as supported and modified by Feuer — would have raised some business taxes and lowered others. It sounded good, but it would have had to go on the ballot; we know what voters tend to do with any proposal that raises taxes for anyone. And just think how much worse it might look if L.A.’s voters actually rejected a business tax.

The compromise approved instead, and now moving through the council, wouldn’t raise any taxes, but would give taxpayers a choice between a complex tax format and a simple one that would cost more. Though the new tax would cost the city at least $16 million a year, the loss would be offset, the wisdom goes, by the certainty that, as a more business-friendly place, Los Angeles would attract enough new enterprise to make up the difference.

Would this happen? Who knows? The fact is that the city has never been that unfriendly to business. But the perception has been otherwise. The new business tax would change very little. It might only change perception. And as such, it would be worth the trouble. After all, if you have no real problem, it begs of no real solution.

Cetina Soars

 

The Luis Cetina 14th District council-candidacy balloon went up last week, and a large and colorful thing it was.

On hand to celebrate the liftoff were around 50 members from Council 36 of the American Federation of Federal, State, County and Municipal Employees. There was also the entire regional council of the L.A. Service Employees International Union (SEIU). This is by far the biggest union endorse-ment of any candidate in the race.

And this was the biggest sendoff yet for a candidate in the district long ruled by the discredited Richard Alatorre. Up-and-coming San Fernando Valley Assemblyman Tony Cardenas was there, along with many of Cetina’s Eastside support-ers. Less expected was the presence of Ophelia McFadden, the SEIU operative who presided over the recent landmark health-care workers’ organization; also present was Damon Moore, political director of SEIU Local 660: They happen to be African-Americans.

Now there aren’t that many African-Americans in the district. But McFadden’s and Moore’s presence somehow addressed certain invisible, hovering concerns about black-Latino relations. Such as, while the latter group’s power wanes, the other’s rises. Maybe that’s what McFadden meant by suggesting that Cetina was "the one who could bring the people together."

Then again, there was Los Angeles school-board member Barbara Boudreaux, who termed the 33-year-old comer "dynamic and knowledgeable." Considering her own pending uphill fight for re-election, it might be wondered whether Boudreaux mightn’t derive more advantage from Cetina’s support than vice versa. My guess is that there was no net effect. They are not, after all, running in anything like the same district.

Oh, and speaking of faraway districts, county Supervisor Don Knabe has also endorsed Cetina.

It must be said that Cetina is a powerful and effective speaker, in English and Spanish. He’s had the professional training offered by the Metropolitan Water District’s Speakers’ Bureau (an MWD department that trains employees to orate upon district issues in public forums), and it shows.

Even so, I asked my old friend Julie Butcher, who honchos the SEIU local representing most city employees: Okay, why back this guy out of all the 13 people who’ve cast their hats in this particular rueda? And she had a simple answer: Cetina’s been a union member since he joined the Metropolitan Water District after graduating from Cal Poly. And, she claimed, he’s the only current union member in the race.

Could this be true in so blue-collar a district as the 14th, and with so large a field of candidates? Perhaps. Yet Cetina has no record in local electoral politics. He says he worked last year for Gray Davis’ Latino "Cafe California" organization, as well as Al Checchi’s campaign for governor. And he’s volunteered for a number of youth-service and educational-outreach programs — which is only par for many educated young Latinos and Latinas in the district. But he hasn’t worked for any candidates in the 14th.

A district, by the way, into which he only moved in February 1998. But there are other doubts regarding his past.

Cetina’s county voting record, for instance, withholds his political affiliation until he registered as a Democrat last February. Doesn’t he think the voters should know whether he was a Green, or Peace and Freedom, or Republican? The political-affiliation history of anyone running for public office ought to be public information. Cetina admits that before 1990 he was a Republican. And since?

He seems to be a bandwagon kind of guy: I was informally told that SEIU Local 660, the county employees’ union, gave its endorsement only after Cetina agreed to promote the moribund proposal to rebuild County-USC to a full 750-bed, instead of the supervisors’ planned 600-bed capacity.

Now a Los Angeles City Council member has as much say in this decision as does the order person at Pizza Hut. And seeking more public inpatient capacity for a community whose increasing health need is for clinical care seems to me idiotic policy.

However minds may differ about the Big County buildout, though, it would be insane for any resident of eastern El Sereno to support Cetina, since he also backs the completion of the 710 freeway. This project will displace hundreds, if not thousands, of El Sereno residents. Although it promises to bolster business in downtown Alhambra — whose council and mayor accordingly support Cetina — it’ll make a shambles of much of the 14th District. As well as a goodly slice of South Pasadena — Cetina’s recent abode.

This time, Cetina may have leaped on the wrong bandwagon. Labor and Alhambra business support it. But the 710 project — for which hundreds of El Sereno homes have already been condemned — has never been popular in the 14th. As Kathy Molina (probably the leading woman candidate in the race) puts it, "I’m tired of seeing my community raped by bought politicians." She’s not the only one.

Cetina’s major debit, however, didn’t show up Friday. This was outgoing Councilman Richard Alatorre, a key Cetina backer. So what we have here is an attractive political innocent, suddenly a major joiner, who is abetted by the least innocent, and most discredited, person on the entire City Council. Enough dead weight, one could think, to sink the most buoyant balloon.