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A San Diego Superior Court judge has denied a request from a local labor union to block a planned vote on the $520 million Convention Center expansion, City Attorney Jan Goldsmith’s office said today.

The hotel-workers union filed suit last week to stop an April vote by the city’s hoteliers on a hotel-room tax to finance most of the expansion.

The union argues city voters, not hoteliers, should be the ones deciding the tax hike. Wednesday’s ruling denied the union’s initial attempt to declare the scheme illegal. But the court will hold a hearing on whether to throw out the case April 6.

Regardless of this case’s outcome, the expansion’s legal uncertainty remains. If hoteliers approve the tax hike, the city plans to seek formal court approval because of the novel nature of the financing scheme. The hotel-workers could contest the proposal then, Goldsmith’s office said.

Here’s how we described the legal issue in a recent Reader’s Guide on the Convention Center expansion:

In California, the law is pretty clear. If you want to raise taxes, you need voter approval. If you want to raise taxes for a specific project, such as expanding a convention center, two-thirds of voters have to sign off.

But San Diego’s Convention Center expansion isn’t going to a public vote.

Instead, expansion backers think they can get around the law. They argue that the tax hike actually is on hotel owners, not hotel guests. Under this logic, hoteliers are the ones who can vote on the tax increase.

This plan faces significant questions.

City Attorney Jan Goldsmith said proponents were touting the proposal as a legal slam dunk when it isn’t. (To drive home the point, he even used capital letters to emphasize the tax increase.)

The city plans to ask a court if it can borrow the money through this scheme. Two big special interests, the Chargers and the hotel-workers union, contend the financing proposal is illegal. (The fact that the Chargers have inserted themselves in the discussion — or, as our Scott Lewis said, the team went “nuclear” — highlights what’s at stake.)

Despite the risks, backers of the expansion think their plan has a better chance in the courtroom than through a public referendum. The key hotelier behind the expansion has said winning two-thirds voter approval is “almost an insurmountable threshold.”

Liam Dillon is a news reporter for voiceofsandiego.org. He covers San Diego City Hall, the 2012 mayor’s race and big building projects. What should he write about next?

Please contact him directly at liam.dillon@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5663.

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Liam Dillon

Liam Dillon was formerly a senior reporter and assistant editor for Voice of San Diego. He led VOSD’s investigations and wrote about how regular people...

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