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Quality of Life

San Diego Vs. Los Angeles: A Tale Of Two Tax Measures

Demonstrators hold signs at a rally in opposition to Measure A, Sept. 22, 2016.
Matthew Bowler
Demonstrators hold signs at a rally in opposition to Measure A, Sept. 22, 2016.
San Diego Vs. Los Angeles: A Tale Of Two Tax Measures
Both San Diego and Los Angeles counties have half-cent sales tax increases on the ballot meant to pay for transportation and infrastructure upgrades. Measure A in San Diego has divided both liberals and conservatives, yet Measure M in L.A. enjoys broad support.

Measure A in San Diego County is among the most controversial issues on the November ballot. The half-cent sales tax increase would give billions of dollars to new public transit, biking and walking projects.

But a number of progressive and environmental groups have rallied in opposition to the tax, arguing it won't do nearly enough to reduce the county's greenhouse gas emissions. This is based in part on its early funding of highway expansions, which make up about 14 percent of the tax's expenditure plan.

RELATED: Measure A Tax Increase Divides Conservatives, Liberals Alike


But north of San Diego, Measure M in Los Angeles County enjoys wholehearted support from a broad coalition of environmental, progressive, labor and business organizations. This is despite the share of highway funding being even greater, at 17 percent.

Both measures need approval from two-thirds of voters to pass.

The differences between the two counties' tax measures goes far deeper than these two numbers. Here are three important reasons why both the content of the two tax measures, and the support for them, are so drastically different.

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1. Los Angeles is more liberal than San Diego.

Registered Democrats make up 52 percent of voters in L.A. County, while Republicans make up 19 percent. Given that Democrats tend to be less tax-averse, it follows that public agencies can be bolder in the amount of taxes they ask voters to approve. Similarly, if public agencies assume Democrats will favor public transit more than Republicans, they can be more progressive in the ways they spend tax dollars.


The effects of this can be seen in several ways. In 2008, 67 percent of L.A. County voters approved Measure R, another half-cent sales tax. That revenue is now being used for an unprecedented expansion of the county's rail network.

The same year saw the failure in San Diego County of Proposition A, a parcel tax that would have funded fire protection services. The measure won 64 percent approval from county voters, falling short of the two-thirds majority needed under California law.

San Diego County, in contrast to L.A., has only a slight plurality of registered Democrats, at 37 percent. Republicans make up 32 percent of voters.

When discussing where to allocate revenue from Measure A, officials emphasized the need to attract more voters by giving them projects that are the most politically popular. Polling of voters across the county appeared to support the assumption that most voters value highways and road repair over public transit.

Beyond plain tax aversion, San Diego may also be less friendly toward organized labor. Attempts to attach Measure A to a project labor agreement, which can guarantee union wages and benefits on construction projects, were not seriously considered. As a result, the electrical workers union is bankrolling the funded opposition campaign to Measure A. Measure M in Los Angeles contains a project labor agreement and has broad support from both unions and chambers of commerce.

2. Traffic and pollution are worse in L.A. than in San Diego.

The data company INRIX found earlier this year that Los Angeles had literally the worst traffic congestion in the country. A similar report by Texas A&M University placed L.A. at or near the bottom of every traffic scoring.

While San Diego is far from traffic-free, the region ranks considerably well in both of the previously mentioned studies. Congestion here may not have reached the point at which a significant portion of drivers — and voters — are ready to abandon their vehicles in favor of mass transit.

A map from CalEnviroScreen shows areas in green where San Diego County's air quality is relatively good. Areas in red, including the South Bay, have higher levels of pollution.
A map from CalEnviroScreen shows areas in green where San Diego County's air quality is relatively good. Areas in red, including the South Bay, have higher levels of pollution.

Pollution is also a greater problem in more parts of L.A. County. A quick glance at CalEnviroScreen, the state's tool to map air quality, shows large swaths of Los Angeles bearing some of the heaviest burdens of pollution.

San Diego County, on the whole, enjoys cleaner air than Los Angeles. Notable exceptions are the South Bay communities of Barrio Logan, National City and Chula Vista. Measure A's expansion of Interstate 5 through those communities — and the added pollution more cars on the freeway would bring — are key talking points among the measure's opponents.

3. The agencies behind the two tax measures are very different.

Measure A was placed on the ballot by the San Diego Association of Governments. Since 2003, SANDAG has been responsible for planning and funding public transit in the county. The agency's 21-member board of directors has representation from the local governments of every city, plus the county Board of Supervisors.

This structure has led some to call the SANDAG board undemocratic: While the city of San Diego has 42 percent of the county's population, it has less than 10 percent of the seats on the SANDAG board. Votes by the board are counted as both a tally and as "weighted votes" proportionate to population size. However most resolutions must pass both thresholds, meaning any action requires broad consensus between urban and rural areas. Indeed, most votes at the SANDAG board are unanimous.

Because smaller, more conservative cities have outsized influence on the SANDAG board, the organization has been the target of harsh critiques — and a lawsuit — by environmental groups. Progressives often repeat the line that several SANDAG board members don't believe in the existence of climate change.

Measure M was placed on the ballot by L.A. Metro, which plans, funds and operates public transit in Los Angeles County (SANDAG has never been in charge of day-to-day transit operations). With 13 members, the L.A. Metro board is much smaller than SANDAG's, and urban areas have a greater share of the representation.

This appears to have had an influence on the collaborative process L.A. Metro undertook in crafting Measure M. Bryn Lindblad, associate director of the L.A.-based nonprofit Climate Resolve, has recruited much of the environmental coalition supporting the tax measure. She said L.A. Metro board members and staffers have been working for years with environmental and transit advocates to craft their policies on sustainability.

"If it didn't feel like there was a culture shift underway at Metro, and that they cared about trying to achieve climate resiliency results through all of the infrastructure projects that they fund, I think maybe just reading the percentages (of Measure M projects) alone might look like it's kind of 'business as usual,'" she said. "But it does seem Metro is trying to be a leader in the sustainability space."

Lindblad said her coalition used SANDAG's combative relationship with environmental groups as a warning to L.A. Metro of what could happen if the agency did not take environmental concerns seriously. She said environmental groups had discussed taking a hardline stance against highway funding, but that there were doubts they had the political clout to accomplish a tax measure that was more pro-transit.

"We decided that it didn't seem like the best strategy, that we would rather have positive public momentum around the whole package," she said. "Seeing the political realities if Measure M doesn't go though, (we) probably won't see a funded campaign for another eight years. And with the population growth that L.A. is seeing, it's hard to imagine getting through another eight years with this traffic situation."