The battle’s brewing in San Diego over union-friendly construction pacts known as project labor agreements and a major theme in the debate has already emerged.

Labor leader Lorena Gonzalez says an initiative banning the agreements on next summer’s ballot sets the city up to lose $40 million to $250 million in state funding annually for a wide range of projects stretching from minor road repairs to major buildings like a new Chargers stadium.

Voters will decide whether the city should be banned from requiring the construction pacts for public works projects. There’s a wrinkle: A bill signed into law Sunday cuts off state funding and financial aid for projects in cities with the bans.

It doesn’t say cities must use the pact to receive state funds. It only requires cities be allowed to consider using them.

Gonzalez, head of the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council, argues the ballot measure would ban San Diego city officials from ever considering the pacts and therefore cut off state funding in all cases. Her $40 million-$250 million estimate includes major assumptions about what funding the new law can cut.

The city gets all kinds of state money to build things like roads, finance big downtown buildings and conserve sensitive land. It’s possible Gonzalez’ estimate could be high because she assumes money for roads, public transit and redevelopment counts as state funding. Some funding sources were established by the state, for example, but are now managed by local agencies.

One problem hanging over this debate is a lack of clarity from the state. The new law doesn’t explain what kinds of state funds and financial aid are affected. If it comes down to it, the city would likely appeal to the state or the courts to figure out if the law applies to them and how.

But the initiative already has a loophole to avoid Gonzalez’ concern, its supporters say. They say the city can get out of the ban if state money’s involved.

“If there’s state money in it, that kind of trumps the local initiative,” said Scott Crosby, president of the San Diego chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors, Inc., which sponsored the ballot measure. “They can consider a project labor agreement if the state says they have to.”

But if that’s the case, Gonzalez said, what’s the purpose of the ballot measure? She said the vast majority of public works projects in San Diego involve state funds or financial aid in some way. The loophole would therefore allow city officials to waive the proposed rules in most cases, she said.

“They just admitted defeat,” Gonzalez said. “They’re living in some fantasy land and spending $1 million on a campaign that’s meaningless.”

I couldn’t immediately figure out how much state money is involved in city projects. Gonzalez said she couldn’t think of a city project that doesn’t involve state funding in some way. When asked Tuesday, neither could ballot measure proponents.

So I then asked city officials who oversee construction projects. Of the 1,000 construction projects managed by the city’s capital improvements department right now, mayoral spokeswoman Rachel Laing said 129 — or roughly 13 percent — involve state funds.

At a City Council meeting Monday, city officials said they would have a fiscal analysis of the initiative around mid-March. “We’re not ready to give you an off-the-cuff legal opinion,” City Attorney Jan Goldsmith said.

One hypothetical example that both sides cite in the debate is San Diego’s new $185 million downtown library, which is partially funded by $80 million from redevelopment and $20 million from a state library grant.

If both the ban and the new state law were in effect when the city approved the library, Gonzalez says it would have been ineligible to receive $100 million in funding. Crosby argues nothing would have been different.

If the city is no longer eligible for redevelopment money for construction projects as Gonzalez suggests, that’s a huge deal for many of San Diego’s proposals. Losing redevelopment would complicate the proposed downtown Chargers stadium and Convention Center expansion, and eliminate a major pot of money for new affordable housing, fire stations and community parks.

While the two sides dispute how the ballot measure would impact local projects involving state funds, they do agree on the impact to projects involving only local funds. In those cases, the city would be banned from requiring project labor agreements. No loophole applies.

San Diego’s initiative follows similar battles over project labor agreements in Chula Vista, Oceanside and San Diego County last year. Voters supported bans in each election.

I’ve written at length about the agreements through our Fact Check Blog and previous elections coverage. For a quick primer, I recommend reading this article or watching this video. Please share your insight, opinion and questions about the issue with other readers in the comments section below.

Keegan Kyle is a news reporter for voiceofsandiego.org. He writes about public safety and handles the Fact Check Blog. What should he write about next?

Please contact him directly at keegan.kyle@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5668. You can also find him on Twitter (@keegankyle) and Facebook.

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