At one point in my recent meeting with Cory Briggs, Donna Frye and two members of San Diegans for Open Government – Pedro Quiroz Jr. and Richard Lawrence – Briggs’ smart phone rang.

Mark Fabiani, the special counsel for the Chargers, was the name that came up on the screen. Briggs put his hand over it and put the phone away. We all laughed a bit.

On Nov. 20, Briggs will send out signature-gatherers to collect the 75,000 or so valid signatures they would need to get an initiative on the ballot for June. Their measure would remake downtown and the city’s hotel-room tax system unlike any proposal in the decade-plus since two proposals to increase the tax failed at the ballot box.

The proposal seems to have left San Diego’s elite tongue-tied.

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Well, one part of the measure is innovative, if not genius. It’s the same part, though, that’s legally shaky. So far, only a fiery talk radio host is willing to say it’s illegal.

Briggs’ innovation is in what we’re going to call here “the deductions.”

To understand it, though, you have to dial back a bit. Right now, the city of San Diego’s hotel-room tax stands at 10.5 percent. But after voters rejected two efforts to increase it – one that was widely backed by hotel owners – in 2004, the tax was essentially raised to 12.5 percent without a vote of the people.

How? Hotel owners got together and formed something like a business improvement district, or BID. They called this the Tourism Marketing District, or TMD. But unlike other businesses that get together to do this in neighborhoods, the TMD put the fee right on their customers’ bills. In some cases, they even called it a tax. On the bills.

They liked this approach so much that they tried it again, this time to fund a Convention Center expansion. It was a different structure but similar in the effort to raise the tax again – this time up to 3 percent for hotels closest to the Convention Center – but again without a vote of the people.

The city attorney was so unsure of the legality that he invited people to sue so it could be validated by a court before construction began. Briggs and attorney Craig Sherman obliged, and the increase was thrown out, along with the Convention Center expansion.

Now Briggs has moved on and is challenging the TMD. The trial began this week. It may very well also be thrown out.

You have to understand that to understand this latest proposal.

The initiative Briggs, Frye and their allies are pushing has some basic elements. One, it would restructure the hotel-room tax and eliminate the TMD; two, it would prevent an expansion of the Convention Center on the waterfront; three, it would pave the way for a stadium downtown or in Mission Valley while making more explicit some of the protections for area around the San Diego River.

None of that is particularly genius.

The innovation from Briggs is this: The initiative would raise the hotel-room tax from the 12.5 percent it effectively is now, to 15.5 percent. But if hotels owners decide they still want the Tourism Marketing District (Hint: They do) they can prove they contributed to a new one, and deduct 2 percent. If hotel owners decide they want to build a Convention Center in the same way, they can deduct another 2 percent.

What’s more, it would also authorize the city to allow the visitor industry to take over operations of the Convention Center – something that has caused a beef between the Convention Center and the San Diego Tourism Authority for years.

In other words, Briggs intentionally designed the initiative to appeal to hotel owners.

He said he stared at a wall for many weeks trying to figure out the spot in a Venn diagram where the hotels, Chargers, taxpayers and his group’s interests intersected.

He said he was inspired by the federal tax code, which provides a major incentive – through the mortgage interest deduction – for people to purchase homes.

The deductions to the hotel-room tax rate, he said, would provide an incentive to self-assess for marketing and to pay for the Convention Center annex.

“We don’t say what the self-assessments are. What we do say is this is the most you can deduct from your (hotel-room tax) bill. Two percent. Now they have every incentive to do it on time, on budget, make sure there are no cost overruns, run it efficiently and the city gets all the upside of a convention center with a cap on its share,” he said.

Bill Evans, the owner of several hotels in San Diego and the exact type of person Briggs is trying to appeal to here, did not dismiss the initiative. He said he didn’t understand it.  (“I feel like a dog watching TV.”)

But he’s waiting to hear why it won’t work.

“I have no idea if this thing is based in reality or fantasy. What I haven’t been able to get from anybody is – show me, prove to me, other than with your gut instinct – something that says it doesn’t work,” he said.

Carl DeMaio says he can.

The talk radio host and former city councilman supported the hotel-room tax hike without a vote of the people that was later deemed illegal.

Now, though, he’s ready to stand up for the public’s right to vote on an increase. He says the genius part of Briggs’ initiative is actually illegal. It should require approval not only from voters, but from more than two-thirds of them. He said he’ll sue if it is approved.

“If hoteliers are going to be seduced by this, my friends, it’s not going to come without the risk of legal action,” DeMaio said on the radio. “If you think doing a deal with Cory Briggs is wise, man you guys are ignorant.”

DeMaio’s contention is that the deductions would be specific earmarks for where the money raised from the tax increase goes.

California law has a peculiar twist that governs tax hikes that go toward specific causes. If local governments want to raise taxes and if they don’t say at all where the money is going to go, they only need a bare majority of voters to support it.

If they do say where the money from a tax increase will go – and voters seem to like that more – it requires a two-thirds vote.

DeMaio’s contention is that Briggs’s deductions are just clever signals to voters as to where the money is going.

“He’s kind of done a backdoor way around calling something an earmark,” DeMaio said.

Putting aside DeMaio’s demonstrated failure to identify illegal ways around voter approval for tax hikes before approving them in the past, it is the biggest question here.

DeMaio told me that he’s even pulled the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association into the effort to oppose Briggs’ measure.

But I called Jon Coupal, the executive director of that group, who said he was only slightly aware of the issue and had not “directly engaged with it.”

He did offer his basic principle: “Proposition 218 requires that its provisions relative to voter approval be liberally construed,” Coupal said, referring to the state law that governs the voter thresholds for tax hikes. “If there’s some effort to deprive voters of their rights to approve an increase to a special tax, the burden will be placed on the city to demonstrate compliance.”

Briggs said the initiative would not at all require the city to spend the money in any certain way. The deductions hotel owners might make from their tax burden are all purely optional. What’s more, he said, it will be assumed legal until proven otherwise.

Sherman, the other lawyer who helped throw out the city’s last attempt to avoid a public vote, said he was unsure as well. The assurance that hotels had a choice in the matter reminded him of the city’s earlier assurance that they had a choice to put the tax on the bill of their customers – an option everyone knew they would not take.

Regardless, unlike the city’s attempts in the past, this would be a vote of the people.

“We got in this situation because a whole lot of people tried to figure out a way to keep the public shut out of the process,” said Frye.

She’s motivated by what the measure does for Mission Valley, strengthening protections at the Qualcomm Stadium site for the riverfront.

Briggs made a change after first announcing the plan. He included a provision that cleared the environmental hurdles for a football stadium on the same site – just as it does for downtown.

That might be why Fabiani was calling.

    This article relates to: Convention Center, Government, Must Reads, Tourism

    Written by Scott Lewis

    I'm Scott Lewis, the editor in chief of Voice of San Diego. Please contact me if you'd like at or 619.325.0527 and follow me on Twitter (it's a blast!): @vosdscott.

    FrontPorch subscriber

    As much as I admire some of Corey Briggs' legal work on behalf of the environment and other public land use concerns, I do not admire his creating a Citizens' Plan for a stadium that is so complex not even the VOSD can sort it out in one article.  Neither has this been done in the U-T.  The Citizens' Plan is a 77-page document that is extremely complex and yet so vague in terms of what it can reasonably predict for repayment of an enormous City stadium debt over a long term in which financial downturns both nationally, statewide and locally can change the ability of hotels to compete for tourist dollars.

    There is a simple understanding available to all of us who are facing the limits of our own budgets amid an unpredictable future.  You don't go shopping for things you don't need when you can't pay for the things you do need.  Perhaps Mr. Briggs has spent so much time staring at the "Venn diagrams" on his wall to see how the stadium could be built with public revenue that he forgot that simple premise by which all responsible fiscal decisions must be made.

    Paul Girard
    Paul Girard subscribermember

    This initiative was modified to allow both Mission Valley and Downtown to be considered as a site for the new stadium. But it prohibits expanding the convention linearly, thus favoring a disjoint convention center, presumably related to a downtown stadium. I believe we should not allow this initiative to bias the decision about the convention center and at the same time bias the decision about the stadium to be downtown. The decision about the convention center should be left to rational business analysis, not this political maneuvering. The prohibition of building the convention center contiguously should be deleted from this initiative.

    richard gibson
    richard gibson subscriber

    Thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of us want the Chargers to simply get out of town. The team and its owners demean this lovely city. Why not interview us? 

    ZachW subscriber

    I've never been a fan of Carl Demaio, but I have to give him credit here. He's giving Brigg's a taste of his own medicine - a cantankerous, irritating wedge squawking about suing and derailing a large city financing scheme. How many times has this been Brigg's role?

    David Benz
    David Benz subscriber

    Who is paying for the signature gatherers?  Briggs scurried away from here when he was caught lying about the contiguous CC expansion. He is definitely in someone's pocket, probably JMI.

    ZachW subscriber

    KPBS reported JMI's namesake Mr. Moores has donated $45,000 to the signature gathering process. Briggs is every bit as dirty as the political elite downtown - he's tied to developers and has the Charger's lawyer Fabiani calling his cell phone. What I don't get is why Donna Frye has put her good name and reputation on the line for this scam. I'm losing a lot of respect for Donna.

    La Playa Heritage
    La Playa Heritage subscribermember

    AB-483 approved October 4, 2013 is a game changer for lawsuits involving Business Improvement Districts (BID) and Tourism Marketing Districts (TMD) statewide. AB-483 has never been analyzed by local media in San Diego. Government Code Section 53758 was added to clarify that BIDs and TMDs are Assessments, not Taxes, as they relate to our California Constitution. Therefore not subject to 2/3 public voter approval requirement for Special Taxes. If AB-483 is upheld by the courts on appeal.

    The 2013 clarification law pushed by the California Travel Association, League of California Cities, and TMD attorney Michael Colantuono was made specifically to counter the multiple Briggs BID and TMD lawsuits statewide. The California Taxpayer Association opposed SB-483. The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association was neutral on the bill.

    The new law states "A “specific government service” may include, but is not limited to, maintenance, landscaping, marketing, events, and promotions."

    Therefore, in theory, TMD fees can now be used to subsidize our Convention Center including paying for a new sails roof, instead of only just limited marketing and promotions. 

    Local Yes votes included Toni Atkins, Brian Maienschein, Ben Hueso, Marty Block, Shirley Weber, Brian Jones, Marie Waldron, and Rocky Chavez, 

    Local No votes included Lorena Gonzalez and Joel Anderson. 

    Jerry Hall
    Jerry Hall subscribermember

    Ultimately the voters will decide so, ultimately I support this idea. Finagling to circumvent voters is costing the city (taxpayers) millions upon millions and is shady at best. Since the taxpayers are ultimately on the hook they should ultimately decide. Sadly millions will be poured into campaign marketing efforts to spin the story but, again - that will be on the voters to discern.

    ZachW subscriber

    The tax payers don't win if this thing passes, Brigg's, Spanos and Morres/JMI Developers do. I agree the voters should decide on raising the hotel tax, but it should be a simple yes or no initiative and then let our elected representatives work out the details. This initiative has too many giveaways and complicated legal jargon tied to it. No voter will know precisely what the hell they are voting on. I'm firmly a no on this scam.

    Geoff Page
    Geoff Page subscribermember

    I don't care how clever or genius the plan is.  WE DO NOT NEED to expand the convention center and WE DO NOT NEED a new stadium.  All of this energy and focus would be better put elsewhere like, oh, say affordable housing, smooth roads, walkable sidewalks, new water mains...  All of the studies on convention expansions show it is a folly and spending any time discussing a new stadium that brings practically nothing to the city or county GDP is a waste of air.

    ZachW subscriber

    I agree we shouldn't spend a cent of public money on a stadium. If, however, the city decides differently then a new stadium in mission valley would be better than downtown. Putting another large sports stadium downtown would ruin San Diego's East Village. Briggs has long been in favor of a downtown stadium with a convention center annex tied to it. This is what the Chargers want as well. Briggs is - through this initiative - pandering to the Chargers worse than Faulconer is. I hope Carl DeMaio sues and wins if this scam passes.

    Bill Bradshaw
    Bill Bradshaw subscribermember

    I'm not smart enough to understand all the nuances like Bob Stein, but I've got a hunch it's too clever by at least half and the voters will reject it.  

    Bob Stein
    Bob Stein subscriber

    The news in this initiative is that puts the hotel industry in charge of the convention center. 

    In doing so it does two things San Diegans will love, once the consequences are made clear (if they can be in a city where the media speaks mostly Republican).

    First, it puts financial responsibility for tourism where it should be, with the people and businesses that profit the most from it.  In other words, it ends a form of welfare for rich guys.

    Second, it severs the decade’s old, back-scratching relationship between hoteliers and Republicans in City Hall, which is why Faulconer will oppose it, if the hoteliers tell him to.  

    It does the first by putting the most obvious public costs of tourism onto tourists, instead of residents, using a small increase in the tourist tax that even the likes of Bill Evans will admit will have no effect on decreasing demand for rooms.

    It does the second by removing the need for hoteliers to get resident taxpayers to pay for things that are essential to the success of their industry, like a convention center and tourism marketing budget.  This changes the nature and purpose of campaign contributions and will reduce the cozy relationship between hoteliers and their politicians.

    There something else you missed as well. 

    Why didn’t Faulconer come up with idea?  Or for that matter the legions of Mr. San Diego’s, Stadium and Convention Center Committee members or Chamber of Commerce mooks perpetually congratulating each other for how smart they are about running San Diego?

    The two most glaring answers are: they’re not smart or imaginative enough, and their frame of reference lies not with the people, but with lining their pockets at the public’s expense. 

    Or in the case of Faulconer, he’s just too weak and limited to figure out such a thing.

    Whatever gets said about Briggs and his initiative, keep in mind you’re witnessing the actions of a strong mayor -- the big picture person with the will and the way to overcome impasses and get stuff done by reflecting the needs of the people.

    Chris Brewster
    Chris Brewster subscribermember

    Mr. Stein: Thank you for these key insights, which I was unable to glean from the story itself. If we can decouple the convention center costs from local taxpayer responsibility it will be a huge step forward in my view. Local taxpayers have been a piggy-bank for hoteliers under the vague and unproven assertion that our "investment" pays for itself. In fact, I imagine it is mostly corporate welfare, as you assert. If they must spend the money as if it is theirs I suspect all the hot air regarding the how essential a convention center expansion is will dissipate rather rapidly. And they might even decide to do some of the routine maintenance that has long been ignored.

    Bob Stein
    Bob Stein subscriber

    @Chris Brewster  Thanks. I interpreted this from listening to the VoSD podcast with Briggs and reading articles and editorials in the UT.  Most address the shift in one way or another but don’t explicitly say so. 

    Bob Stein
    Bob Stein subscriber

    @David Benz @Bob Steinn  

    I’ve learned a lot about the stadium issue from your posts.  Thanks for that.  You’re one of my favorite regular posters.

    As far as the initiative goes, I’m writing from the perspective of a retired advertising guy, which is what I am.  In that context, motives are less important than how the benefits of an idea are sold to their respective audiences.

    This initiative has a variety of benefits for a variety of audiences, which is probably its greatest electoral strength.  Furthermore, it creates strange electoral bedfellows because it forces voters to make trade-offs, where they never have before. 

    The UT has already endorsed this line of reasoning for its readers.  In a recent editorial they figuratively said it’s OK to vote yes for the initiative.  All you have to do is say the devil made you do it.

    We could go further…

    ·If the stadium is still an issue in June, rabid Chargers fans will vote yes, even though in San Diego this group is probably full of vehement anti-tax advocates.

    ·Old hippie coastal liberals will vote yes to save the waterfront, while at the same time most probably despise the violence and plantation metaphor of football.

    ·Hotel workers are another affinity group. A campus-based expansion of the convention center is good for their jobs.  Their bosses will probably try to convince them otherwise.

    ·Mass transit advocates will be appalled at how the initiative further solidifies downtown as a tourist and entertainment venue instead of a major business and residential center, but the prospect of a huge park in Mission Valley may get them to vote yes.

    You see where I’m going. 

    ZachW subscriber

    @Bob Stein

    The problem with your post is it implies there is no back-scratching and developer giveaways in Brigg's initiative. There is. JMI is financing the signature gathering and stands to make millions if this passes. What you said about city hall is correct, but what you fail to comprehend is that Briggs is doing the same things they do. I'm a liberal, but I don't care if it's a Republican or Democrat trying to screw the city with giveaways I'm against it either way. Just because Briggs and Donna have a D after their name instead of an R doesn't mean a complicated intitiave designed to ruin downtown with another mega stadium and line the pockets of a mega developer is any better!

    David Benz
    David Benz subscriber

    @Bob Stein It's a great idea to make the hoteliers financially liable for operating and the expansion of the convention center but with that said, the offsite expansion is a horrible idea. JMI's Convadium proposal is one of the most idiotic things I've ever seen, the scheduling conflict would make it unusable for conventions on Sundays for half of the year.   It's right up there with some of San Diego's dumbest decisions in history like using Balboa Park as a landfill and turning down the Navy's $1 offer to move the airport to Miramar.  Good thing the Chargers are leaving in a few months and we wont have to worry about it.

    Briggs is dead wrong about the contiguous expansion's impact on public access to the waterfront.  It's impossible to take him seriously as long as he sticks to that false narrative.

    ZachW subscriber

    David Benz, agree 100%. I'm in favor of raising the hotel tax, but NOT with the stipulations Briggs is putting on it. While I like the environmental component for the SD river (is THAT why Donna is supporting this??) the stadium down/convention space is a horrid, horrid idea and I wouldn't vote for this thing in a million years.

    ZachW subscriber

    @Bob Stein, I do see where you are going with this and perhaps you are right, but if I'm a "test case" you're wrong. I'm a liberal, long time supporter of Donna Frye, and I agree with the positive things the initiative has in it. But the negatives far outweigh the positives for me. Let our city council come up with environmentally friendly plans for the SD river as a stand alone measure, don't tie it to some horrible massive convention-stadium monstrosity downtown. As you note, one stadium is enough. Downtown needs to balance the tourism component with civic, transit, and jobs people can walk to. Again, I can't speak for every liberal voter in the city, but in my opinion this initiative does much more harm than good.

    Don Wood
    Don Wood subscriber

    Let me get this straight. When he was on the city council, Carl DeMaio voted to create an illegal tax, which was shot down in court.

    Briggs and friends have come up with a way the hotel owners could use transient tax money to promote tourism and build a new

    convention center expansion downtown off the tidelands. And now DeMaio, is threatening to sue them if they comply with the law

    by supporting the new initiative. Guess the only world Carl wants to live in is when where politicians and businessmen break the law. Go figure. Guess that's why he's been reduced to an AM radio shock jock these days.

    Chris Brewster
    Chris Brewster subscribermember

    Bill Evans doesn't understand it? Unlikely.

    Mark Giffin
    Mark Giffin subscribermember

    We voted for a ball park (petco) and ended up being screwed. That screwing was done when all the "principals" (downtown interests, city council, public unions and SDCERS) all got on board with the scheme.

    This proposal by Briggs should be held suspect by the voters. The monies going into the General fund doesn't guarantee any of the expressed virtues of the measure will be realized.

    Appears to be nothing but a revenue grab to bolster city coffers