The LookOut columns | What I Say

Frank Gruber

Measuring and Propositioning

By Frank Gruber

So far this election season I have written many words against Measure T and a few words in favor of Measure AA, but there are other measures and propositions on the local, county and statewide ballots that I don't want to overlook. Later this week I'll write about the City Council and School Board races.

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Measure SM is a measure the City of Santa Monica has placed on the ballot to approve an extension of the utility users tax (UUT) to new kinds of telephone technologies, such as T-1 business lines. (There is some misapprehension in the community that Measure SM would extend the UUT to cell phone calls, but the UUT already applies to cell phones. Measure SM does clarify that the tax applies to text messaging.)

The measure was prompted by changes at the federal level involving a federal excise tax on telephone services; these changes left open the possibility that municipal taxes on telephone service could be invalidated. Potentially that would cost the City in the range of $12 million. One purpose of Measure SM to clarify that the City's tax on telephone bills is valid.

One can raise questions about how the City spends money, and when the City had its last financial crisis, in the early years of this decade, I pointed out that the City Council had in those years irresponsibly increased spending during the boom of the late '90s, ignoring the possibility that a stock market decline would increase the City's obligations for funding its employee pension plans.

Since then the City has improved its budgeting practices, although if there is big recession on the way, we'll soon find out if the City has put away enough reserves. In any case, the telephone tax is an important part of the City's revenues, and it's also clear that the residents of Santa Monica desire continuation of a high level of municipal services.

Since many businesses pay the tax in Santa Monica, this is an example of how having a strong local economy benefits the city's budget and the city's taxpayers.

The politics of Measure SM are interesting if only because Council Member Bobby Shriver came out against it at a candidate forum I attended a few weeks ago. This seems to be part of his strategy of identifying with the disgruntled, anti-City Hall element in Santa Monica's politics. Other than Mr. Shriver, the opposition to Measure SM has been confined to the usual residents who oppose any tax measure.

Vote yes on Measure SM.

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If traffic congestion is the defining issue in local politics, then there is one measure on the ballot that should unite all Santa Monicans. That measure is Measure R, which the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro) placed on the L.A. County ballot. Measure R is a half-cent sales tax to provide major funding -- up to $40 billion -- for transportation improvements for the next 30 years.

Santa Monican residents should be proud that this measure is to a great extent the product of the efforts of Santa Monicans, particularly former mayor Dennis Zane and current Chair of the Planning Commission Terry O'Day, who spearheaded the effort to put a comprehensive funding plan for transportation on the ballot, and Council Member Pam O'Connor, who as Chair of the Metro board helped shepherd the measure through the board's political thicket and onto the ballot.

Locally, the measure is closely identified with the extension of the Wilshire Boulevard subway, first to Westwood and then, possibly, all the way to Santa Monica, and the completion of Expo Rail to Santa Monica from Culver City, but the measure would provide funding for many projects throughout the county.

The measure has drawn some criticism because sales taxes are considered regressive, but that's only partially the case. Since expenditures of the poor and working class households are heavily weighted toward non-taxed items, food and rent, in fact high-income households that spend more will pay more of this tax.

In any case, the estimated average expenditure of $25 per person is much less than the cost that even poor people bear annually in traffic delays that affect, of course, not only drivers but also bus riders.

Another factor to keep in mind that there is every indication, particularly if Barack Obama is elected president, that the Democratic Congress, when faced with the need to put the economy back on track, will invest heavily in productive infrastructure, such as transportation. By having local money available to invest in transportation projects, Metro will be able to put its projects at the head of the line, since the federal government always looks for local matching funds.

Vote yes on Measure R.

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For reasons similar to those for voting for Measure R, I also recommend voting yes on Proposition 1A on the statewide ballot, the nearly $10 billion bond issue to start building a high-speed rail network in California.

Forty years after bullet trains started running in Japan and Europe, it is way past time for these proven technologies to be implemented more extensively in the U.S., where so far only watered down versions have been built in the northeast corridor.

What people in Santa Monica and the Westside of L.A. should realize is that the building of high speed rail connecting California cities could have a direct impact on the local quality of life, because so many flights at LAX are from the airport to California destinations. By building a high-speed rail system, there will be less pressure to expand airports, including LAX.

Combine that with improving the Green Line connection to LAX with money from Measure R, and it might actually become easier to move around again.

Vote yes on Proposition 1A.

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Proposition 8 is not the type of ballot measure I usually write about in this column, since same-sex marriage is not the kind of issue that has a direct impact on local government. (Although I have once before written about the subject, in 2004, in what is probably the strangest column I ever wrote. ("WHAT I SAY -- Tea Tea and Marriage Marriage," March 1, 2004) But I can't ignore Prop. 8 -- not after attending, a few weeks ago, my first wedding between two friends of the same sex.

I was always going to vote against Prop. 8, but after the wedding I can only say that I wish that every Californian will have had the opportunity before Nov. 4 to attend such a ceremony.

In a certain sense, we heterosexuals have taken marriage for granted. It's a ritual we expect to go through and expect our straight friends and relations to go through, but then I'm guessing that most of us know couples who live together and don't get married and we don't think one way or the other about it.

If someone had asked me a month ago what was the least important element of my relationship with my wife, I might have said that somewhere in a drawer we have a certificate that says we are married.

But that was before I attended the ceremony where Cathy and Barbara exchanged their vows. Now I realize the significance and the beauty of marriage. Sometimes seeing what it means not to have something is what it takes to show you its importance.

Vote No on Prop. 8 -- please.

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The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of
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