The Convention Center Expansion Zombie Ballot Measure Rises Again

by on April 10, 2019 · 0 comments

in San Diego

By Doug Porter / Words&Deeds

A coalition of more than two dozen voting-rights, civil-rights, social-justice, labor and community organizations organized by Alliance San Diego has written to the City Council, urging them to not place a measure on the March 2020 primary ballot.

Despite two thirds of city voters in 2016 casting ballots in support of Measure L, limiting local ballot measures to November general elections, supporters of an increase in the tourism occupancy tax (TOT) have been maneuvering to get their initiative considered earlier.

The Yes! For a Better San Diego group is seeking to exploit a loophole allowing elected officials to act in times of urgency to place a measure on an earlier ballot when needed. The proposed initiative would increase the city’s 12.5% to 13.75 or 15.75%, depending on the location of each hotel.

A tentative vote by the San Diego City Council is set for April 15 on whether to move the vote for the increase to the hotel-room tax to March 2020. Mayor Kevin Faulconer, who’s made getting the convention center expansion a priority, strongly supports the move.

In 2018, a petition drive to place the group’s initiative, promising to fund convention center expansion, homelessness services and street repairs, failed to get enough signatures in time to qualify for the general election.

A last-ditch effort by the Mayor to get the City Council to place the measure before voters in 2018 election also fell short.

From the Alliance San Diego letter:

The proponents of the TOT measure had the opportunity to qualify for the November 2018 election, but did not gather enough signatures in time. They have since qualified for the November 2020 ballot, which is when City Council should bring this measure before the voters, not in a lower-turnout primary election eight months earlier. There is no demonstrated urgency and we should not mistake political expediency for urgency.

The TOT measure is an important issue facing the city, but it does not constitute the urgent circumstances that would justify the City Council bypassing the decision of the voters on Measure L. In fact, given that the measure raises significant questions of how public land and public resources should be used, there could be no greater rationale for ensuring the full and maximum participation on these issues by the public in a November election.

We urge you to listen to the voters and respect their decision in Measure L as you have done in the past, such as in June 2017, when you declined to call an early election for a similar measure. The proponents of the TOT measure had the opportunity then to take the steps necessary to qualify for November 2018, but they did not take those steps. Although they have now qualified for November 2020, they again seek to avoid a November election for political gain. Measure L was intended to protect voters from this kind of manipulation.

The San Diego-Imperial Counties Central Labor Council, arguing that 7000 jobs would be created in addition to funding homelessness programs, is among those advocating for an earlier vote. Voice of San Diego reports labor leader Keith Maddox sent an email urging allies not to sign Alliance San Diego’s letter.

Some supporters of the hotel tax increase have expressed concerns about their measure competing with two others on the 2020 general election ballot, one supported by homeless advocates and another funding transportation projects.

The Alliance letter was signed by Affordable Housing Coalition of San Diego County, AFT Guild, Local 1931, Alliance San Diego, Alliance San Diego Mobilization Fund, American Friends Service Committee, California Common Cause, Christ Ministry Center, Council on American Islamic Relations San Diego, CREED-21, Employee Rights Center, Espacio Migrante, Independent Voter Project, Justice Overcoming Boundaries, League of Women Voters, San Diego, Partnership for the Advancement of New Americans, Pillars of the Community, Planned Parenthood of the Pacific Southwest, Safe Harbors Network, San Diegans for Open Government, San Diego Border Dreamers, San Diego Education Association, SanDiego350, Somali Bantu Association of America, South East Sustainability Coalition, The San Diego LGBT Community Center, Urban League of San Diego County, We The People – San Diego County

Other factoids of interest on the subject:

Convention Center and hotel tax matters have not historically fared well with San Diego voters, going back to the 1930s. Convention center projects failed at the ballot box in 1946, twice in 1956 and again in 1981. Funding for the existing convention center came from the Port District.

An effort to call a TOT tax bump a surcharge just a few years back (for a tourism marketing district) went down in flames before the courts.

Then there’s the question of whether or not the Convention Center really needs to be expanded. Opponents point to studies by Heywood Sanders, a professor of public administration at the University of Texas at San Antonio, suggesting the market for such facilities is overbuilt. Growth supporters like to talk about the potential loss of Comic Con.

Finally, there’s a nagging detail about acquiring the 5 acres needed for expansion of the facility. The city has defaulted on a deal –based on the 2018 ballot measure that didn’t happen– to buy the lease from a company looking to construct a hotel on the site. So technically, there’s nothing stopping developers from building… except that the proposed hotel will have plenty of permitting hoops to jump through be construction to start. Obviously, the city is hoping to renegotiate should a 2020 measure pass.


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