Transportation will be a major focus Wednesday night when Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa urges voters in his State of the City address to turn a half-cent sales tax increase approved in 2008 into a permanent fixture in order to fund the accelerated construction of 12 jumbo transit projects.
Some city workers are expected to stage a protest outside Paramount Studios, where the mayor will deliver his speech, because they expect him to announce plans to lay off some municipal employees and defer raises for others when he unveils his budget on Friday.
Art Sweatman, a tree-trimmer for the city for 15 years, said on the eve of Wednesday's address that Villaraigosa had mismanaged the city's finances, and he called on budget officials to focus on uncollected revenues.
"We've stepped up to the plate the last couple of years, deferred our cost of living increases and contributed more to our retirement health care," Sweatman said, reflecting an attitude common among people who normally form part of Villaraigosa's constituency.
The mayor is expected to ask city workers tonight to pay more for their health benefits to help drive down city costs, which are growing faster than revenues.
Additionally, he will call for using $2.5 million to start a new city-funded economic development department to replace the city's former property tax-funded redevelopment agency. Gov. Jerry Brown last year pushed through legislation that disbanded about 400 redevelopment agencies to help close the state's budget gap and pay for public schools.
But transit issues are expected to be at the heart of the address.
More than two-thirds of county voters agreed in 2008 to increase the sales tax by a half-cent to fund transportation projects over 30 years, including a subway to the Westside, a downtown subway connector and an extension of the Gold Line light rail into the San Gabriel Valley.
According to the mayor's office, he will use tonight's speech to call on voters to support a November ballot measure to eliminate the scheduled 2039 expiration of the Measure R sales tax. He will argue that doing so will allow the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to finish the transit projects in 10 years instead of 30, creating 152,000 jobs in the process.
"Mayor Villaraigosa will speak to Angelenos and tell them it's time for some common sense for the common good," Press Secretary Peter Sanders said. "By continuing Measure R, we will be creating jobs, relieving highway congestion, and completing light rail and subway projects in one decade instead of three."
Metro Board member Richard Katz, a close Villaraigosa ally on transportation issues, said extending Measure R would allow Metro to use the future tax revenue as leverage to get good rates on bonds that would help raise an estimated $9 billion necessary to complete the projects in 10 years.
"This would not commit anybody to any bonding. It's really just putting one more tool in the toolbox," Katz said. "If we pump $1 billion every year into these projects, our economy is going to skyrocket and will be a huge economic boost for the county."
Accelerating the projects would make them cheaper by allowing the city to lock in low interest rates on borrowing and taking advantage of current low construction costs, Sanders said.
A ballot measure to extend Measure R indefinitely would require a two- thirds vote by L.A. County voters. It would also require an amendment to state law that bars taxes for transportation from being limited to 30 years. Assemblyman Mike Feuer, who is running for City Attorney, has introduced a bill that would change the law.