Los Angeles County Half-Percent Tax:
A Model for Right Action

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Darrell Steinberg served as California State Senate President pro Tempore in 2008-2014

Los Angeles County has one of the largest homeless populations in the nation, made up of more than 46,000 men, women, children, veterans and the elderly, who live on the streets on any given night. Many of these people live with a serious mental illness and a majority of them also struggle with a substance use disorder. For reasons as varied as each individual, thousands of people live on the streets in makeshift tents and sleep under bridges, and the majority spend their days and nights in a constant search for a safe place in what is a highly volatile and unforgiving environment. This human tragedy must no longer be ignored.

In 2004, I co-authored Proposition 63, the Mental Health Services Act. Our goal was to infuse California with funding to provide high-quality services and support to people who live with a mental illness. The initiative was approved by voters and currently places a 1 percent tax on individuals whose personal incomes exceed $1 million. This ongoing revenue source is currently bringing in $2 billion and I know it is making a profound, positive impact on the lives of tens of thousands of people and yet, it is not enough. Many continue to languish on the streets of every county in our state.

Given the immensity of the homeless population in Los Angeles, the County Board of Supervisors has put forward a proposal very similar to Proposition 63 that would create a half-percent tax on yearly income for millionaires residing only in Los Angeles County. If the Board is successful at getting the initiative on the November ballot, and the measure is approved by voters, it is estimated to generate about $250 million annually to fund the County’s plan to eradicate homelessness in Los Angeles altogether.

In order to levy a direct income tax on residents, the Board must first gain the approval of the California State Legislature and the Governor. Once that is achieved, the initiative will be placed on the ballot and voters in Los Angeles County will then have the opportunity to decide for themselves if eradicating homelessness is a priority for them.

I am in full support of this proposal and commend the legislators who are leading the charge on this issue. Common sense tells us that the first step toward improving the lives of those who live on the streets is to get them off it and into decent housing. Once that basic need is met, lives are changed for the better, hundreds of millions of dollars can be saved in public services annually, and Los Angeles, Sacramento, and other California cities and counties can be a model for right action and a beacon in our state and nation.

To view the article on the Huffington Post, click here.

Darrell Steinberg served as the California State Senate President pro Tempore and the leader of the majority party in the California State Senate from 2008 to 2014, until his retirement. He co-authored Proposition 63, approved by voters in 2004, which imposes a 1 percent tax on incomes exceeding $1 million to fund mental health services. Proposition 63 generates $2 billion annually to help people struggling with mental illness throughout California. He is a founder and Board Chair of the Steinberg Institute for Advancing Mental Health Policy, and the Director of Policy and Advocacy and a visiting professor for the UC Davis Behavioral Health Center of Excellence.

Faces of the Homeless Fuel the Fight

Los Angeles County Supervisors now have a daily reminder of the “Faces of Homelessness,” an art exhibit on display just outside their downtown offices in the Hall of Administration. The exhibit, unveiled June 1, features 18 oil-on-canvas portraits of homeless neighbors accompanied by moving biographies.

“The portraits and biographies are filled with human tragedy,” the artist, Dr. Stuart Perlman, said. “If you hear their stories and look into their eyes, you will never see a homeless person the same way again.”

The artist, Dr. Stuart Perlman

The artist, Dr. Stuart Perlman

Dr. Stuart Perlman has been a psychologist and psychoanalyst in West Los Angeles for over 30 years. In 2010, he began painting portraits of homeless individuals. He spent hours listening to their stories and getting to know them. He now has over 160 portraits of homeless individuals from Venice Beach to Skid Row.

“These are portraits of actual people, who have a name, a past, and more importantly, a future,” Supervisor Ridley-Thomas said at the unveiling.

“Displaying this captivating art is important, but it is vital that we take action to address the crisis of homelessness,” the Supervisor said.

The County Board of Supervisors is doing just that—specifically, asking the State to permit the County to ask voters if they are willing to allow a personal income tax on the wealthy to fund homelessness programs. Based on the county’s call to action, a coalition of state legislators sent an open letter to the Governor, Assembly Speaker and Senate President Pro Tem in support of Los Angeles County’s request seeking a tax on personal income in excess of $1 million.

To help fund the fight against homelessness, please join the Board of Supervisors in contacting state lawmakers to voice your support.

News Conference: LA County Supervisor Seeks to End Homelessness

NBC4’s Conan Nolan talks with LA County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas about a movement to increase taxes on millionaires in the county to help pay for the never ending homeless problem.

Supervisor Goes to Sacramento to Preserve Homeless Funding Options

Tasked with garnering support for a Board-approved motion seeking legislative authority to help fund the fight against homelessness, Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas journeyed to Sacramento to speak with lawmakers about the crisis in Los Angeles County.

Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon

Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon

“We’ve polled extensively and we’ve learned from the people of the County of Los Angeles that homelessness is a top tier issue, second only to jobs and the economy,” Supervisor Ridley-Thomas testified before the California Senate Budget and Fiscal Review Committee, chaired by state Senator Mark Leno (D-San Francisco). “Homelessness is the issue driving people’s conscience, stirring their spirits, causing us to know what we need to do.”

You will hear from the County of Los Angeles a cry of urgency,” Supervisor Ridley-Thomas added, speaking on behalf of the Board. “We need your help in allowing us to do what we need to do. We need to go to the ballot and we need your permission to allow us to do that.”

With 46,874 homeless in the County on any given night, the Board approved a Homeless Initiative to explore options for addressing the crisis this growing problem. After conducting 18 policy summits and collaborating with 25 County departments, 30 cities, and more than 100 community organizations, the Office of the Homeless Initiative developed 47 strategies.

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Supervisor Ridley-Thomas meeting with the LA Legislative Delegation

The Board approved those strategies in February and allocated $100 million in one-time funding for initial implementation. Now it is weighing options for funding, including redirecting Measure B revenue, imposing a parcel tax, a marijuana tax, a half-cent sales tax, or a half-percent tax on personal income exceeding $1 million a year. At present, the Board cannot use the last option as it requires a change in state law.

A recent poll has shown that a half-percent tax on personal income exceeding $1 million a year tax would be supported by 76 percent of likely voters. It would also generate $243 million each year, which, according to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, would cover about half the annual amount needed to provide services to the homeless population on an ongoing basis.

“I am asking this Committee to consider the Board’s directive to include budget trailer bill language that would provide counties with the authority to seek voter approval at the local level to impose a special tax on personal annual incomes over $1 million dollars for purposes of providing housing and services for homeless individuals/families,” Supervisor Ridley-Thomas said in Sacramento.

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Supervisor Ridley-Thomas testified before the California Senate Budget and Fiscal Review Committee

He also expressed the Board’s support of the state Senate’s No Place Like Home proposal, authored by Senate President Pro Tempore Kevin de Leon (D-Los Angeles), which seeks to build affordable housing for the homeless and mentally ill.

“The No Place Like Home proposal is an excellent start – it will predominantly provide the resources to build the infrastructure,” Supervisor Ridley-Thomas said. “Los Angeles County, however, also needs to find the ongoing revenue to support the services that homeless individuals will need, even after they obtain housing.”

Supervisor Ridley-Thomas met with several state lawmakers, and also urged the public to advocate for trailer bill language that would grant counties the authority impose a special tax on personal income above $1 million a year to address the County’s crisis of homelessness.

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Supervisor Ridley-Thomas in front of the California State Capitol in Sacramento

Moving Forward to Fund the Fight Against Homelessness

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Acting on a motion by Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Sheila Kuehl, the Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 to seek a change in state law that would keep all options open to fund the fight against homelessness.

“To address the profundity of the crisis and the depth of poverty and homelessness in the county, we have to do more,” Supervisor Ridley-Thomas said during Tuesday’s Board meeting, where more than 150 members of the public testified in support of his motion.

“It won’t get better unless we have significant intervention,” he added. “Each member of this Board has said repeatedly that one-time funding isn’t sufficient. Now it’s time to get on with the rigorous exploration of the kind of funding that would be necessary.”

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With 46,874 people living on the streets of Los Angeles County on any given day – up 5.6 percent from last year – Supervisor Ridley-Thomas called homelessness “the most compelling crisis that confronts us.” He added the County is “uniquely positioned and, therefore, specifically obliged” to take action because of its massive social services, health and public safety infrastructure.

Since adopting a sweeping set of strategies February to address the worsening crisis, the Board has been weighing options for funding. This includes redirecting Measure B revenue, or imposing a parcel tax, a marijuana tax, a half-cent sales tax, or a half-percent tax on personal income exceeding $1 million a year.

A recent poll found 76 percent of likely voters favor the last option – a “dramatic level of support,” pollster David Binder told the Board. The Board, however, does not currently have the authority to put such an initiative on the November ballot. Supervisors Ridley-Thomas and Kuehl’s motion, which passed with the support of Supervisor Hilda Solis, launches the County’s efforts to seek that authority from the state Legislature and Governor.

“Our actions show that the Board is strongly committed to finding the long-term funding needed to implement the County’s innovative and comprehensive Homelessness Initiative,” Supervisor Kuehl said. “The friendly amendment I introduced this week also allows us to evaluate the interaction of this possible County tax with a new state bond proposal which could build housing in the County.”

The Board also approved Tuesday a measure by Supervisors Solis and Don Knabe that would delve into how the County uses existing funding to serve the homeless. Supervisor Ridley-Thomas expressed support, saying, “It continues our long-term efforts to always ensure we are leveraging existing resources as effectively as possible.”

More than 150 people testified before the Board to support continued efforts to address the homelessness crisis. Steve Renahana of the nonprofit Shelter Partnership told the Board: “Thank you for your leadership in passing a comprehensive set of strategies to address homelessness in the County, and thank you even more for beginning the heavy lifting of providing the resources that are necessary to implement those strategies.”

Marsha Temple, executive director of the nonprofit Integrated Recovery Network, added, “The cost of doing nothing is too high, both in terms of funding and human misery.”

“I’m so proud that you always remember who you’re working for,” said “Sweet” Alice Harris, an advocate for the homeless. “I’m glad you didn’t let God down. Thank you.”