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Inside the Fight on the Left Over SANDAG’s Big Tax

A liberal group called the Quality of Life Coalition is vowing to defeat SANDAG's ballot measure because they don't think it does enough for the environment or for labor. That's  vexed Democrats on SANDAG’s board, who say the proposal goes as far as it can while also doing enough to woo the necessary two-thirds of voters.

Labor groups and environmentalists have emerged as the loudest opponents of a proposed tax increase for countywide transportation projects, and Democrats pushing the initiative can’t quite figure out where they went wrong.

More than 20 liberal organizations, calling themselves the Quality of Life Coalition, have pledged to defeat the proposal from the San Diego Association of Governments. They argue the package of transit, highway, stormwater and preservation projects doesn’t do enough to shift the region to an environmentally sustainable transportation network, or promise enough to the laborers who will construct the $18 billion worth of projects over 40 years.

That’s vexed Democrats on SANDAG’s board, which is composed of elected leaders from around the county, who contend the proposal reflects as many of the coalition’s priorities as possible while maintaining a reasonable chance of wooing 66 percent of county voters in November. (State law requires that any measures raising taxes for a specific purpose must be approved by two-thirds of voters.)

Their frustration boiled over in a series of emails, obtained by Voice of San Diego, between two Democratic board members – Solana Beach Councilwoman Lesa Heebner and Encinitas Deputy Mayor Lisa Shaffer – and members of the Quality of Life Coalition.

The coalition on June 13 sent board members a statement explaining their opposition: The measure didn’t do enough to create good-paying construction jobs, would create negative environmental impacts disproportionately affecting poor neighborhoods, wouldn’t ensure funding went to projects that cut greenhouse gas emissions, would not build enough transit or improve stormwater infrastructure and wouldn’t spend enough on open space preservation.

Heebner and Shaffer responded with an eight-page letter in which they said they were “puzzled” by the coalition’s concerns.

“No matter what our preferences and priorities, the reality is that any measure needs a two-thirds majority vote to pass, and polling consistently indicates that without funding for local roads and some highway improvements, the whole effort fails and we get nothing,” Heebner and Shaffer wrote.

“This measure will provide more money than ever before dedicated and assured for transit, active transportation,” the letter reads. “We are unable to imagine a realistic scenario that would do more and have enough public support to actually be enacted.”

In one section, Heebner and Shaffer argue that the federal government prevents SANDAG from striking project labor agreements – deals that guarantee worker pay and benefits and that require hiring to be done through union halls. It is a specific priority for the coalition.

Ricardo Ochoa, a union attorney and coalition member, responded harshly.

“The assertion that ‘the Federal Government does not allow PLAs’ is 100% false, and I am sorry that SANDAG staff is apparently spreading such misinformation,” Ochoa wrote.

He’s right. The Obama administration encourages PLAs on federal projects, and has since February 2009.

Heebner copped to the error, apologized, and said she stood by the rest of the letter.

Gary Gallegos, SANDAG’s executive director, said Heebner and Shaffer were likely confused by information his staff provided on the plan’s goal of hiring at least 80 percent local workers. It’s OK to prioritize local hiring, he said, but it can’t be a mandate.

But the discrepancy led Mike Bullock, a member of the local Democratic Party’s central committee, to send an email criticizing Heebner and Shaffer for not seeing the error as proof SANDAG was willing to mislead them. Ochoa in one email said it demonstrates why the group doesn’t trust SANDAG as an honest broker.

Heebner and Shaffer responded that it was insulting to suggest they were being duped.

“We are both thoughtful, intelligent women who have studied the issues,” they wrote in response.

Heebner said she’s confused and frustrated by the coalition’s approach.

“I’ve found them to be personal and derogatory,” she said. “I love them all individually, but now it’s like: We’re on your side. How did we become the bad guys? I support them. Why don’t they go talk to the Republicans that won’t vote for them?”

Heebner said she and other Democrats have pushed the board to adopt more of the coalition’s priorities into the measure. It’s Republicans who oppose the coalition’s priorities outright who are keeping it from moving further to the left, not her and other Democrats.

She thinks the groups should be happy that less than 20 percent of overall spending is going to highway-related projects, and that the measure makes more than $7 billion available to transit projects like the purple line – a new trolley extension planned to run roughly along the I-805 from the South Bay to Kearny Mesa – that benefit the coalition’s support base.

“It is surreal that their allies are now the right-wing Republicans,” she said. “The world has gone cockeyed. Shouldn’t aligning with Republicans make them reconsider their position as progressives?”

The local Republican Party has also promised to oppose the measure, though it’s done so on simple anti-tax grounds. Other conservative figures have also pledged to oppose the measure as unnecessary.

In one email, Ochoa acknowledged the positive relationship his group once had with Heebner and Shaffer.

His complaint with Heebner and Shaffer’s letter wasn’t limited to their confusion on project labor agreements. He also cited a plan to widen I-5 in the South Bay, the negative effects of which would be shouldered by National City residents, along with opposition to plans to widen State Route 94.

“Just to take one example, the South Bay community of National City is the only community slated for a widening for general purpose lanes, which is one of the many serious concerns the Coalition has with this measure,” Ochoa wrote.

“While it appears to be too late to avoid us launching a ‘Vote No’ campaign for November, we look forward to working with you on a measure we can all support once this measure is defeated,” he wrote.

Heebner said she doesn’t think that’s realistic.

“If this fails, the message (Republicans on the board) will get is, ‘We tried and everything we gave them, they wanted more,’” Heebner said. “They’ll say there’s no need to engage them again.”

Update: After this story was published, Heebner took exception with the way Gallegos characterized the interaction between her, Shaffer and SANDAG staff over PLAs.

They weren’t confused, she said. They asked SANDAG staff about PLAs, and were given information about federal limitations on local hiring requirements.

Gallegos acknowledged that Heebner was right, and that he had mischaracterized the exchange when he said Heebner and Shaffer were confused.

“The confusion was ours, to be quite candid,” Gallegos said. “They asked our staff about PLAs, and we sent them stuff that we were working on that was on local hire.”

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