Listening to the candidates yammer these past few weeks, you'd be hard-pressed to know that L.A. faces deficits of more than $200 million over the next several years - and that there's really no great way of raising the money. You also might not realize that L.A. government has been cut back so much that many of the services we have come to expect are either gone or significantly reduced. City Councilman Eric Garcetti, for one, doesn't want to talk about it - "City Hall's current focus on cuts and taxes - what services to cut, how much to tax people - is wrong," he says on his website. "The priority at City Hall must be creating jobs and putting constituents first." That's the ticket - just pretend the red ink isn't there and everything will be all right. At least Garcetti lays out his priorities (however misguided they might be) - City Controller Wendy Greuel offers few specifics on her website, other than wanting to eliminate waste and inefficiency at City Hall. Nothing wrong with that, but the numbers she's talking about - a few million here and there - don't begin to tackle the long-term financial mess. (Her office is just out this week with an audit about the city overpaying on mileage reimbursements. Imagine that - fudging on an expense report!) Kevin James has two things going for him: He's not an insider and he knows how to make a speech. After that, he starts to lose me. Jan Perry does seem to have an understanding of the deficit problem, along with a willingness to deal with out-of-control pension and health care costs, but I'm not sure about her citywide vision. That's a problem with all the candidates. "Forgive the cliché," writes Los Angeles magazine Editor-in-Chief Mary Melton, "but this is a city of dreamers. Our next mayor needs to think big." One way not to think big is to reflexively promise more jobs, as I talked about in this week's Business Update on KPCC:
Steve Julian: We have a mayor's race in L.A., and voting is in March. What do the candidates say they can - or will - do to help the local economy?
Lacter: Mostly they're promising stuff. Their televised debate over the weekend gave voters a little taste of what they're in for. Almost all the economic proposals were made in the name of creating jobs, whether it's the repeal of businesses taxes, or a push for solar energy, or making it easier for tech companies to set up shop in L.A. Now, not to burst any of their bubbles, but the mayor of the city of Los Angeles has never been in much of a position to increase employment in any significant way, and that's not about to change. But even putting that aside, the ideas simply don't add up.
Julian: How so?
Lacter: You can't just eliminate a business tax without first figuring out how to offset the tax revenue that you would be losing as a result. And, there's little evidence that business activity will increase so dramatically that it'll make up the difference. So, the city could actually lose money instead of make money. The only real way to create lots of jobs in L.A. is for the overall U.S. economy to get better - and we are seeing signs of that happening. What the candidates really need to tell us is not how to create jobs they're not in a position to create, but how they intend to manage a city government that's been gutted from budget cuts, especially the elimination of thousands of positions.
Julian: And it isn't just present-day expenditures, is it?
Lacter: No. Pension and health care obligations are eating into the money that would otherwise be used to fund services. In fairness, that's a dangerous conversation to have because it means upsetting some important constituencies. But L.A. government must operate differently than it has in the past and I'm just not sure these candidates have gotten the memo.
Look, these are all smart, good people, and it can take some time before candidates hit their stride. We can only hope the new year will bring out a lot more.