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San Diegans have a tough assignment this June.

Aside from the mayor’s race, city council races and numerous other elections, they’re being asked to weigh the merits of a contractual arrangement that few know anything about.

But have no fear!

We’ve put together a five-step guide to the ballot initiative called Proposition A. Just follow the steps below for an overview of the debate and to understand why hundreds of millions of dollars could be at stake.

Step 1: Watch a two-minute video.

Prop. A is part of an ongoing battle between nonunion contractors and organized labor over government-funded construction projects. Both groups are seeking to gain advantages in the contracting process and pad their pockets with more money or better benefits.

This entire debate hinges on a contractual deal called a project labor agreement. It allows public agencies to set rules for things like who contractors hire and how workers are compensated on major construction projects. In exchange for additional benefits, unions agree to prevent costly work stoppages.

This video, which we produced in partnership with NBC7 San Diego, explains the agreements and why there’s been so much fuss over them lately. The video aired in August 2010, a few months before county voters approved a ballot initiative similar to Prop. A.

Step 2: Read our primer on project labor agreements.

We wrote a Q&A-style explainer about Prop. A after the initiative qualified for the ballot last year. It answers many basic questions about project labor agreements, how unions benefit from them and why nonunion contractors want to ban them.

Here’s a key takeaway:

Has the city of San Diego ever used them?

It’s never signed a project labor agreement, but has considered them and has significantly funded contracts using them. In 2003, developers and labor groups signed a project labor agreement for Petco Park, which taxpayers shelled out about $300 million to build.

Why are we having this conversation now in San Diego?

In 2009, the San Diego Unified School District decided to use a project labor agreement for construction projects under a $2.1 billion bond. It marked a major victory for labor and business-backed groups vowed to prevent it from happening again.

Yeah, but do these agreements even happen very often?

Government agencies rarely use project labor agreements. But the San Diego Unified vote showed how a single decision could steer a significant amount of business toward unions for years to come. Similarly, the city of San Diego could hypothetically decide to use a project labor agreement for major public projects under discussion, such as a downtown Chargers stadium or Convention Center expansion.

Step 3: Learn what’s new.

Prop. A would ban the city from requiring project labor agreements unless otherwise obliged by state or federal law. Contractors awarded a project could still sign the deals with organized labor voluntarily.

The proposal mirrors ballot measures passed in Chula Vista, Oceanside and the county in recent years. The major difference in this election is that a couple of new state laws aim to financially punish municipalities that approve bans.

California’s top financial official recently said Prop. A would prevent San Diego from receiving any state grants for future construction projects. The city got about $200 million in grants in the past two years, according to city budget officials.

If San Diego voters approve Prop. A and the state denies grant funding, the battle over project labor agreements would likely head to the courts. The ban’s proponents, which include a local association of contractors and builders, argue the new state laws are unconstitutional, and even if they are upheld, they say the initiative contains a loophole exempting the city from financial penalties.

The City Attorney’s Office, which would defend the initiative on behalf of the city, has not offered an opinion on the state laws. In ballot materials mailed to registered voters, the office said it’s unclear whether the initiative would affect state funding for future city projects.

Step 4: Test your knowledge.

Congratulations! You now know more about Prop. A and are ready to test that knowledge in the spin-cycle of San Diego politics. Watch one of the debates below to see how the two sides are carving out their arguments to voters.

NBC 7 San Diego hosted a Prop. A debate May 5. Lorena Gonzalez, head of the county’s largest labor organization, represented the measure’s opposition and Eric Christen, executive director of the Coalition for Fair Employment in Construction, spoke in support of it.

KPBS hosted a debate May 7. Former city Councilwoman Donna Frye spoke against the measure and Christen again supported it.

NBC7 San Diego hosted another debate May 7. Frye spoke in opposition and Lani Lutar, head of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association, spoke in support.

City election officials have also posted supporting and opposing ballot arguments online.

Step 5: Join the discussion.

Please let our readers know what you think about Prop. A in the comments section below. How will you vote and why?

Keegan Kyle is a news reporter for Voice of San Diego. He writes about local government, creates infographics 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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