A Los Angeles sales tax hike being promoted as vital to preserving public safety and helping end years of budget deficits is drawing support from a narrow majority of likely voters, according to a new USC Price/L.A. Times poll.
Fifty-three percent of surveyed voters said they definitely or probably would vote for Proposition A, which is on Tuesday's ballot and would raise $200 million a year by boosting the city's sales tax rate by half a cent to 9.5%, one of the highest in the state.
About 41% of respondents said they expected to vote against the measure, while 6% were undecided. The results offer hope to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and other backers of Proposition A, which needs 50% plus one of the vote to pass.
GRAPHIC: Contributions to Yes on Prop. A
Because of the poll's 4.4-percentage-point margin of error, support could dip below 50% and passage can't be taken for granted, said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC. "On one hand, [Proposition A] enjoys a fairly sizable lead in the polls," he said. "On the other hand, margins this close to 50% should always be cause for concern for an initiative's proponents."
The bipartisan USC Sol Price School of Public Policy/L.A. Times Los Angeles City Primary Poll canvassed 500 likely voters between Feb. 24 and 27. The poll was conducted jointly by the Benenson Strategy Group, a Democratic firm, and M4 Strategies, a Republican company.
Backers of Proposition A — using contributions from labor unions, billboard companies and real estate interests needing City Hall approvals — have been airing TV ads featuring images of accident victims being rushed to hospitals and a grim-faced Police Chief Charlie Beck warning that "public safety is now in danger."
Beck also has been warning at news conferences and in interviews that the Los Angeles Police Department will lose 500 officers if voters reject the tax increase.
Opponents, who lack the money to mount an advertising campaign, say voters are being asked to pay for bad City Hall spending decisions, including a deal that gives civilian city employees a 25% pay hike over seven years.
Some warn that city leaders will only give away the added sales tax collections by pursuing a proposed phase-out of the business receipts tax. The top five candidates for mayor have come out against Proposition A, and the poll results suggest that was politically wise. Close to half of respondents said they would be less likely to vote for a mayoral candidate who supports the sales tax increase.
The poll indicates that the Proposition A language that city officials put on voters' ballots could end up pushing it to victory, said Chris St. Hilaire, chief executive of M4 Strategies, which helped conduct the poll.
The ballot title calls it the "neighborhood public safety and vital city services funding and accountability measure" and says it would help maintain 911 emergency and other services.
Retired nurse Annette Koppel, 80, voted by mail for the sales tax increase, but only reluctantly. Although she is living on a fixed income, Koppel — a victim of a carjacking in the late 1980s — said she worries about a decrease in the number of police, firefighters and paramedics.
"Without them, what are we going to do?" she asked.
Some, including a former top budget advisor to Villaraigosa who is now running for City Council, have questioned whether the budget crisis is as severe as city officials say.
James Cotton, 84, of Winnetka told The Times that he voted against the sales tax increase even though his daughter is an employee in the Fire Department. Cotton said lawmakers should look for other ways of balancing the budget and making better choices about how to spend taxpayer funds.
"I'm of the opinion that a lot of the money could be better spent," said Cotton, adding that the measure would hurt businesses and residents on fixed incomes.
The push for a sales tax increase is being led by City Council President Herb Wesson, who has helped raise more than $1.2 million for the pro-Proposition A campaign. More than one out of every four dollars has come from labor unions, most of them representing city employees. Service Employees International Union, which represents civilian city employees, has given $100,000. Its members at City Hall received a 3.75% pay increase last summer and are in line for another 1.75% raise in July and a 5.5% pay hike on Jan. 1, 2014.
As of Friday afternoon, real estate interests and billboard companies had provided one-third of the money collected in support of Proposition A, according to Ethics Commission records. Several donors are waiting for the City Council to approve their projects or have already received permission to use tax revenue to finance their projects.
The single biggest donor has been NFL stadium developer Anschutz Entertainment Group, which has received a series of lucrative deals with City Hall over the last decade. The company was given the right to keep up to $270 million in tax revenue generated by its hotels at the LA Live entertainment complex over 25 years.
AEG is also seeking to run the city's Convention Center.
The company, its top executive and its lawyers have given a combined $126,000 to get the measure passed, according to campaign reports.
Times researcher Maloy Moore contributed to this report.