Thursday, January 12, 2012


By Barbara Jones, Staff Writer Daily News |

01/11/2012 08:50:01 PM PST  :: Double-digit unemployment and high foreclosure activity. Rising food and utility bills. Stagnating income and savings.

With families facing challenges like these, the Los Angeles Unified School District may find itself facing an uphill battle persuading two-thirds of L.A. area voters to approve a $270-a-year parcel tax.

Factor in Gov. Jerry Brown's proposed half-cent sales tax hike for education - along with other tax and fee measures likely to appear on the same Nov. 6 ballot - and LAUSD's path to victory gets even steeper, political experts said Wednesday.

"There are a number of complications for the district," said Fiona Hutton, founder and president of Fiona Hutton and Associates in Studio City, a nonpartisan consulting firm that has run the campaigns for several successful statewide ballot initiatives.

"There are dozens of initiatives that will likely be on the same ballot ... Voters look at that and get exhausted and confused, and they just start ticking off `no' votes.

"`No' is a safe vote. There's a harder challenge in running a `yes' campaign," she said.

Superintendent John Deasy has already promised an aggressive effort within the district's 27-city service area to win support for a parcel tax he said is needed to help offset drastic cuts in federal and state funding. The district didn't mount much of a campaign for a parcel tax it put on the 2010 ballot, and the measure fell short of the two-thirds vote needed for passage.

The district is already facing a deficit of $543 million for 2012-13 because of deferrals in state funding for the last five years.

Brown has said he'll ask California voters in November to increase the sales tax by a half-cent and to raise the income tax on those earning at least $250,000 annually. That money would be earmarked for public education.

If voters approve that package by a simple majority, the district would receive an estimated $237 million, Deasy said. However, a defeat would mean a loss of $278 million in state money.

Neither Deasy nor the Governor's Office responded to requests for comment on the possibility of having multiple tax measures on the ballot.

Deasy said that when he begins working on his budget for 2012-13, he'll present "bucket lists" - packages of programs that would have to be dumped if voters defeat either the statewide sales tax, the local parcel tax, or both.

"Everyone is struggling in terms of how to cut costs or create new revenue streams. Cutting came first and now folks are starting to see what might sell," said Richard Lichtenstein, founder and president of Marathon Communications, a Los Angeles-based political consulting firm.

Although the district hasn't yet organized its campaign, Hutton said the district should publicize the overwhelming need for more money in the classroom.

"Parents don't like to see crumbling infrastructure or programs being cut or a lack of enrichment for their kids," said Hutton, whose children attend LAUSD schools. "People have to feel a visceral reaction to say yes."

Although voters may support the concept of providing more money for public education, the reality of their lives could impact their decision in the voting booth.

The unemployment rate in Los Angeles County last month stood at 11.9 percent, a slight improvement from previous months but still disconcertingly high. Preliminary reports by real-estate tracker DataQuick show that some 25,340 local families lost their homes to foreclosure in 2011.

Grocery prices are forecast to increase another 3 percent to 4 percent this year, and Los Angeles DWP customers are likely to start paying higher bills beginning in February.

Hutton also noted a general distrust of public agencies and skepticism about how tax money is being spent - an observation borne out by a call Wednesday to the Daily News.

"A parcel tax would be an absolute waste of money," said San Fernando Valley resident Alex Meade, who added that members of his weekly coffee group would all vote against the parcel tax. "The district's bond program has been a joke from Day One. There's never been any accountability."

There are factors that would help the district, said Lichtenstein, who worked on the successful Measure R campaign that levied a half-cent sales tax for transportation projects in Los Angeles.

The parcel tax would be on the same ballot as the presidential race, which is expected to draw large numbers of Democrats and young adults - those with school-age children who would benefit from the tax.

And while older homeowners whose children are grown would be likely to vote against the plan, all registered voters in the district - homeowners and renters both - would get to vote on the parcel tax issue.

"The district needs to know who its constituency is and who it is not," Lichtenstein said. "They need to raise resources to run a focused, targeted campaign that can stand out among a lot of other measures.

"Education stands out," he said. "They may be able to get it passed."

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