As Election Day approaches, so too does the reckoning day for Los Angeles County's ballot Measure M. The proposed half-cent sales tax on every dollar spent in Los Angeles County will pump money to Metro, which operates and maintains the county's roads and rails.
Mayor Eric Garcetti has advocated for Measure M at the locations of planned improvements. He says he wants to build a modern transportation network for commuters and commerce.
Garcetti spoke on Sept. 27 at a press conference at the junction of I-5 and I-605 to a crowd comprised mostly of journalists and politicians. He said he regularly suffered the horrors of this interchange earlier in his career.
"I used to travel here every month like clockwork on the way to Los Alamitos as a member of the United States Navy," he said. "I drove about 7 a.m. on a Saturday, one of the few times this isn't a busy interchange."
To win support for Measure M, Garcetti has appealed to both drivers and public transportation users, holding several events a week like the one on the Downey freeway overpass in 2016. If approved, the measure's half-cent sales tax increase would generate an estimated $860 million annually.
LA County needs "to make improvements on the freeways we drive on, the rail lines that we need, the buses that we take, to operate and maintain a great system and to connect people to that system for the next 50 years," Garcetti said.
History of Measure M
Mayor Garcetti's support for Measure M is part of an ongoing battle to modernize LA's public transportation. While he was in office, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa led the successful fight for Measure R in 2008 and gained the reputation of being "The Subway Mayor." Four years later, Measure J fell short by 15,000 votes, only 1 percent shy of winning a two-thirds vote.
Government officials and Metro board members didn't use their offices to campaign because of the outcry of conservative county supervisors against Measure J. The opposition came from the Fifth District, overseen by Republican Supervisor Mike Antonovich.
Former Special Counsel to the Attorney General of California Fred Woocher specializes in election law. He said that Metro was only partially correct in its approach to the November 2012 election. He also mentioned that they were right to not spend funds to advocate for Measure J, but Metro officials could have been more outspoken.
"There is a constitutional principle, first articulated by the California Supreme Court in Stanson v. Mott, that prohibits any governmental agency from spending money to participate in an election campaign without specific legislative authorization and in a manner that favors one side or the other," he said.
In Stanson v. Mott, the director of the California Department of Parks and Recreation used $5,000 to promote the passage of a bond that would fund the acquisition of park lands and historical facilities by the state and local governments. The California Supreme Court ruled this was illegal.
"A state park department's use of public funds to finance an election campaign in favor of a park bond issue may, at first blush, seem like a quite innocuous, and perhaps even salutory [sic], practice," the ruling read. "But, as the United States Supreme Court cautioned nearly a century ago, 'unconstitutional practices [often] get their first footing' in their 'mildest and least repulsive form.'"
Nothing in the case prohibits politicians or officials such as Metro board members from campaigning in favor of measures. Villaraigosa could have championed this project as LA's mass transit mayor, but his legacy as the visionary behind Measure R is tarnished by the measure's failure.
Voter confusion in 2016 seems like a real possibility. The turbulent presidential election cycle has occupied the media's attention for much of 2016 created a challenging environment for voters to learn about local election issues. Los Angeles County issued its daunting 224-page voter information guide on Oct. 10 and 11 in which there are two county ballot measures and 17 state propositions.
Measure M is buried among all of this potential legislation. It needs to receive two-thirds vote like Measure J in 2012, but even with the mayor's support it faces roadblocks.
Los Angeles Times transportation and mobility writer Laura J. Nelson reports that only 53 percent of respondents said they would vote yes if the election was that day. Eighteen percent were undecided. The Yes on M campaign has raised $4.4 million but only spent 4 percent of those funds, according to the Los Angeles Times as of Oct. 6.
Moving forward with M
All five county supervisors voiced their support for Measure M. The measure was written to address critics' concerns about Measure J, a similar proposal that was on the ballot in 2012. It lost by 15,000 votes. Antonovich supports Measure M. Garcetti, a Democrat, stressed that the measure is the result of bipartisan work.
"We started this process as a ground-up process," Garcetti said. "Supervisor Mike Antonovich actually started this process as a metro director. He was opposed to Measure J because he thought it was not fair."
Tony Bell, Antonovich's spokesman, said the supervisor took issue with Measure J because it didn't give communities agency to choose projects for themselves.
"They were very focused and specified, very LA city-centric," Bell said. "We have 88 cities and 134 unincorporated areas that were being asked to carry the load but weren't being given the input into the transit plans and proposals."
According to Bell, Antonovich's priority is those living in his district and he could not support a measure that does not address their needs.
Not all residents of Supervisor Antonovich's district agree with his support of the measure. Rosalinda, a Fifth District resident who refused to give her last name, commutes on the Gold Line and uses the Memorial Park station in Pasadena. She opposed Measure J in 2012 and hasn't changed her stance with Measure M. She doesn't think Metro uses its resources responsibly.
"I don't support additional taxes because former ballots have already put major projects on the books that haven't been completed," Rosalinda said. "And I'm disappointed with that and I think that we have to be better stewards of our resources and finances."
Rosalinda made her decision by reading the ballot pamphlet and paying attention to advertising throughout the city. She thinks the campaign was well advertised and that she had enough opportunities to study the issue. Other riders have not. Rio Jimenez, a retail worker, offered his support after learning what changes Measure M proposes.
"You ride the train, see crazy disgusting people harassing other paying customers and you see people playing loud music and video game with no respect. It would be a nice ride for a change," Jimenez said. "It would clean up the graffiti the trash, pretty much everything. It would update the trains hopefully sometime soon."
Measure M may not address Jimenez's concerns about crazy people, but it will provide the funding needed for upkeep of trains. Other metro riders were also concerned about how often trains arrived at their stop. Like Jimenez, Jeanine Vasquez, a nanny and daily metro rider, had not heard of the measure.
"People aren't vocal about it," Vasquez said. "There's probably certain communities maybe lower income communities that don't know about it and just think things are okay and maybe the higher class cities are just like, 'Oh, sure we can do it.'"
While Los Angeles is frequently plagued with low voter turnout at local elections, voter disengagement is not entirely to blame. The Yes on M campaign had not spent much of the $4.5 million it raised as late as Oct. 6. While the campaign ran billboards and Facebook advertisements, it did not place advertisements on its trains. Television ads also aired late in the election season.
Bell expressed confidence that these changes will help the measure pass on its own merit.
"Finally it looks like there's a measure that may complete the system or at least get some of the light rail systems complete," Bell said. "Working with these cities and communities to get their transportation needs met."
Measure M's supporters are confident in an uncertain scenario. The previous incarnation of the measure failed by a slim margin so another close election is possible. Measure M may succeed where J failed if the Yes on M campaign maintains a high profile until Nov. 8.