Terminal 1 at the San Diego International Airport / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Wrangling over union contracts and a Convention Center expansion is nothing new in San Diego, but the way those two fights played out this week was a sign of San Diego’s new political dynamic.

The San Diego Airport Authority’s board voted Thursday to begin negotiations on a project labor agreement – a deal stipulating wages and benefits for construction workers and requiring that contractors hire through union halls – for its Terminal 1 redevelopment plan, a project expected to surpass $3 billion.

Ten years ago, when the same agency rebuilt Terminal 2, the Airport Authority refused to require a project labor agreement.

Also Thursday, Voice of San Diego reported there was significant contention within the region’s liberal coalition over when to put a measure that would raise hotel taxes to pay for a Convention Center expansion and homelessness services on the ballot.

Liberal groups led by Alliance San Diego insist the measure should go to voters in November 2020. They point to a 2016 vote – Measure L – that put initiatives on November ballots by default, unless the Council proactively schedules them earlier. Labor groups, which also supported Measure L, say the measure is a top political priority and favors getting it up in March.

What’s changed: Democrats are ascendant. In November they took over a veto-proof majority on the Council and grabbed control of City Halls in National City and Escondido while making gains elsewhere. In two years, they could control the mayor’s office and the County Board of Supervisors, too.

That means the incentives for Republicans are changing and they could be increasingly willing to succumb on areas where they used to hold the line – such as approving labor agreements for major capital projects. Decisive votes on the Airport Authority came from high-profile Republicans like Councilman Mark Kersey and County Supervisor Greg Cox.

But it also means there could be more room for Democrats to disagree with one another. In this case, Alliance and other progressive groups who signed a letter urging opposition to putting the hotel tax up in March, are holding on to a principle – make major electoral decisions only when the most voters turnout – that they campaigned on not just in 2016, but at the county level last year. On the other side, labor is willing to set that aside to get a project started.

What’s next: One place the new dynamic is playing out regularly is SANDAG’s board. Between shifting political representation and state legislation that empowered Democratic strongholds, the table is set for a new policy direction at a traditionally conservative agency. That agency is now in the process of redrawing the county’s vision of a transportation system, and reprioritizing how to spend the dwindling money it has from an old sales tax measure.

And Council President Georgette Gomez and other Democrats on the Council will decide which side of the progressive standoff wins on the ballot measure question. Gomez agreed to docket the decision for April 15. There are only three Republicans on the Council, and it’ll need five votes to reach the March ballot.

Ward Floats a Different Tax

City Councilman Chris Ward / Photo by Megan Wood

Councilman Chris Ward has always said he supports expansion of the Convention Center and he seemed like he could be counted on to support the initiative and the mayor’s various attempts to get it on the ballot (except when he went to the Cook Islands).

This week we not only learned that he was against moving the measure to March 2020, but also that he would like to see the Council consider putting on a wholly separate measure on the November 2020 ballot. It would compete with the one the mayor, labor and business groups put together.

The idea is to put a simple increase to the hotel-room tax on the ballot. It would only require a simple majority support from voters. The Council could put another measure on the ballot or just adopt a resolution laying out how they would prefer to use new revenue sources in the future, perhaps, for example, they would include a Convention Center expansion in that list.

Ward said on our podcast this week that having two competing ballot measures would be fine:

“Think about it kind of like SoccerCity and SDSU. There was one point in time that said like, you know, everything’s in on SoccerCity and you got to get behind this and support it because it’s polling at 62 percent. And this is the only game in town, and it’s do or die or we’re all going to lose soccer for the rest of our lives. And then we had an alternative group of San Diegans come forward and say we have a different idea — maybe we should kind of consider both at the same time. And look at how the voters actually responded to competing ideas like that.”

Meanwhile …

Affordable housing advocates pushing November 2020 housing bond are among those hoping Ward does not get his way and that the hotel tax hike does make it to the March ballot.

Stephen Russell of the San Diego Housing Federation, which pushed the same $900 million bond measure last year, said this week he believes both the housing bond and the hotel-tax measure could struggle if they end up on the November ballot.

Both measures could require a challenging two-thirds vote and Russell fears having them both on the same ballot could throw voters off.

“We’d like an open path in November,” Russell said. “We think it’s very confusing to voters to have both of these measures.”

The hotel-tax measure has complicated affordable housing advocates’ plans before. Last year, their hopes of a November 2018 property-tax hike to fund thousands of affordable homes were dashed as labor and business leaders rallied behind the hotel-tax hike – and urged bond supporters to stand down.

This go-round, Russell said he’s trying to make the case to hotel-tax supporters that the two measures could complement one another.

His case: A March hotel-tax measure could help bankroll services for homeless San Diegans while his group’s November measure could supply about 7,500 new homes, including 2,500 supportive housing units for chronically homeless San Diegans. Those units would require supportive housing dollars.

While he awaits the April 15 vote that will decide the hotel-tax measure’s fate, Russell said he’s laying the groundwork for a City Council vote to place his group’s measure on the November 2020 ballot by the end of this year – and he said multiple Council members are already vying to lead that effort. Russell declined to reveal their identities.

Scott Lewis contributed a little this week. If you have feedback or ideas for the Politics Report, you can send them to scott.lewis@voiceofsandiego.org or andrew.keatts@voiceofsandiego.org. 

Andrew Keatts

I'm Andrew Keatts, a managing editor for projects and investigations at Voice of San Diego. Please contact me if you'd like at andrew.keatts@voiceofsandiego.org...

Lisa Halverstadt

Lisa is a senior investigative reporter who digs into some of San Diego's biggest challenges including homelessness, city real estate debacles, the region's...

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