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L.A. City Hall employee group moves to oppose sales tax hike

November 16, 2012 | 12:08 pm

Shoppers walk through the Beverly Center in August. Credit: Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times

One of the largest public employee unions at Los Angeles City Hall handed a potentially costly setback to a plan for a new half-cent sales tax, announcing Friday that its political advisory board opposes the measure.

Service Employees International Union Local 721's political education committee recommended unanimously on Thursday night that the group take a position against the tax, which is backed by City Council President Herb Wesson for the March 5 ballot. The council's final vote on that tax is slated for next week.

L.A. leaders frequently rely on unions to deliver financial support for city and county tax measures. Charley Mims, a member of SEIU 721's Committee on Political Education, said it was "pretty obvious" that the sales tax proposal was generated by Wesson after closed-door talks with the real estate industry.

"We're concerned that this was just sprung on us overnight from the backroom and we don't really have the details," he said. "And we're concerned about it being a regressive tax that's really going to be affecting poor and middle-class people more than anybody else -- and those are our members."

Bob Schoonover, president of SEIU Local 721, said in a statement that he agrees with the recommendation, saying the tax measure would hurt middle-class workers across the city.  “Our members decided they just couldn’t support it,” said Schoonover, whose union represents 10,000 city workers.

“We agree that the city needs to raise revenue, but we think there are better, smarter alternatives that don’t simply put the burden on working people,” he said in a statement.

Wesson spokesman Ed Johnson did not immediately have a comment, saying he is looking into the matter. But Councilman Paul Krekorian, who heads the council's Budget and Finance Committee, said the union's statements had taken him by surprise. Asked if he would try to persuade the union to change course, he said: "I don't know if that's my place to do."

"I would hope they would look at this situation and realize that additional cuts impact the people of this city and impact their members," Krekorian said. "We certainly don't want to have more people facing potential layoffs and diminished services."

The tax is expected to generate $215 million, enough to erase next year's projected budget shortfall.

Budget officials at City Hall had spent six months laying the groundwork for a tax increase on real estate sales, one that -- when combined with a levy on parking lots -- was expected to generate up to $150 million. But that plan was greeted with fierce opposition by 10 real estate groups, who steered city leaders to a half-cent sales tax hike instead.

Harvey Englander, whose lobbying firm represents the real estate industry, told The Times that he had shown Wesson and City Administrative Officer Miguel Santana polling numbers that indicated that a sales tax hike would perform much better on election day than a real estate tax. One poll from the real estate lobby found that 64% of likely voters support or are leaning in favor of such a tax -- well over the majority needed for passage, he said.

Wesson proposed the sales tax hike on Oct. 30, one day before the vote to draft such measures for the ballot. In recent days, he downplayed the influence of the real estate industry, saying he was motivated by the success of other sales tax measures in California, both in 2010 and earlier this month.

Four mayoral candidates have taken a position against the tax. So has the Valley Industry and Commerce Assn., a business group.


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Photo: Shoppers walk through the Beverly Center in August. Credit: Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times