LA’s Measure H Campaign Relied on Public Funds, Charity Funds, and Clout

Susan Shelley

Columnist and member of the editorial board of the Southern California News Group, and the author of the book, “How Trump Won.”


It’s official. L.A. County voters have passed another increase in the sales tax, making it 9.5 percent starting on July 1.

On election night, the sales tax increase was barely ahead of the two-thirds vote needed for passage, but then it carried 73 percent of the 283,029 late-absentee and provisional ballots counted later, one-third of the total votes cast. The final margin of victory was 69.34 percent to 30.66 percent.

It was no surprise to the measure’s supporters, who had declared victory long before the final totals were announced, even though there were more than enough uncounted ballots to change the outcome.

What made the proponents so confident? History certainly was not on their side. According to the registrar-recorder’s office, this was the first tax increase proposal ever attempted in a low-turnout March election, and officials checked the records all the way back to 1902.

If you don’t remember voting for a tax increase, it was Measure H, a quarter-cent hike in L.A. County’s sales tax to pay for services for the homeless and also for prevention of homelessness. That second category is flexible and could include job-training programs and legal services to fight evictions, according to county supervisor Sheila Kuehl, who gave an interview to a podcast called “Trump Watch.”

“Watch” as L.A. County loses federal funds and raises taxes because our elected officials would rather protect violent criminals than admit Donald Trump has a point. But back to Measure H.

The Yes on H campaign committee, led by Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, poured over $3 million into mailing and advertising. Campaign finance reports show that Ridley-Thomas’ committee was lavishly supported by companies, organizations and individuals whose fortunes could be greatly affected by government actions.

For example, Airbnb gave $100,000. Coincidentally, Los Angeles officials are thinking about regulations for the short-term rental business. Dart Container, which makes the plastic foam cups, plates and food containers that some environmentalists want to ban, gave $50,000.

Real estate interests were well represented on the donor list. Majestic Realty Co. gave $100,000. Wanda America Investment Holding Co., a subsidiary of a company in China, gave $300,000.

Public employee unions gave generously, too. The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 11, gave $50,000. So did IBEW Local 18. The campaign committee collected $25,000 from the firefighters, $50,000 from the carpenters, and $25,000 from the L.A. County Federation of Labor.

Did county officials ask for any of these contributions with the pressure that’s implicit in that kind of phone call? We don’t know. Donations made at the “behest” of an elected official are supposed to be disclosed, but the L.A. County campaign finance website shows no reports of behested payments after 2013.

Even more troubling than the possibility of pay-to-play or “shakedown” politics is the use of public funds to campaign for Measure H. It’s illegal to spend tax money on campaign ads, but L.A. County spent $1 million on “educational” television commercials that promoted Measure H while carefully omitting the words, “Vote for….”

And even more troubling than that, charities used tax-exempt donations to campaign for Measure H.

Federal tax law absolutely forbids a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization from directly or indirectly participating in political campaigning for or against a candidate or in partisan politics. But in a loophole so big that a C-130 carrying pallets of cash could fly through it, ballot measures are not partisan or candidates.

So the California Community Foundation, a 501(c)(3) charitable organization, put hundreds of thousands of dollars into a campaign committee for Yes on H and started spreading it around. It gave $30,000 to another 501(c)(3), United Way of Greater Los Angeles, which had set up its own Yes on H committee. United Way’s committee had already run up about $30,000 in unpaid bills from political consultants.

One of those consultants was L.A. Family Housing, a 501(c)(3) which is subsidized by taxpayers to build and operate affordable housing complexes for the homeless. United Way made payments of $3,500 and $2,800 to L.A. Family Housing for services described as “campaign consultants” in the pre-election campaign finance reports.

Another consultant was paid by United Way for voter data, plus a fee of $7,500 and $19,501 for “field expenses.”

The Measure H sales tax increase was passed with the help of massive donations from people with business before the government, public money used for “educational” campaigning, and charitable donations used for hardball politics.

Will the money really help the homeless, or is it just another scam? That’s always the question, isn’t it.

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