L.A. Mayor Wants To Save City

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa made headlines last week when he announced he won't be running for the Governor of California in 2010. The Los Angeles native says he won't leave his city because there's too much work to be done. Villaraigosa says he intends to close the half-billion dollar budget, lower the city's high unemployment rate and stem the devastating flood of foreclosures.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, Michael Jackson may have left behind a rich musical legacy but there is growing speculation that he died broke. How could the King of Pop become a pauper? Our Money Coach is back from his travels with a closer look at the Jackson estate and tips on how to protect wealth across generations.

But before we head to Neverland we move south to Los Angeles, with its glamorous sports and entertainment industries, not to mention fabulous weather, L.A. sometimes appears immune to the challenges faced by other cities, but it is not. The city has been hard hit by both a national and statewide economic crisis. A deficit that tops half a billion dollars and an unemployment rate that's hovering around 12.5 percent, that's nearly three points higher than the national average. So as part of our occasional series on how cities are dealing with economic challenges we spoke with Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa last week. He begins his second term as mayor tomorrow. But, before we jumped into the financial issues I asked him why he decided not to run for governor next year. He told CNN it was an agonizing decision.

Mayor ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA (Los Angeles): Well, when I say that it was agonizing, it was a difficult decision. The fact of the matter is, Los Angeles has given me so much. I was born and raised here. My grandpa got here a hundred years ago. It's a great city and we're in the middle of the crisis, as well. And I just couldn't see myself leaving during a crisis to run for governor, particularly when I have a 16-year old daughter who's about to get in 11th grade and all the things that go with that. Filing applications for college and everything, and it just didn't make sense for me or my family.

MARTIN: Was part of it that some of the issues in your personal life last year, the end of your marriage in a very public and painful way, was a part of it you didn't want to revisit all that?

Mayor VILLARAIGOSA: Actually it was two years ago…

MARTIN: Two years ago…

Mayor VILLARAIGOSA: …long time ago and no, that wasn't it at all. I tell you this, though, with respect to my children, I'm probably closer to them today than I was before. I want to be around, you know, novel concept, right?

MARTIN: Well, just one more question on that point before you return to, you know, issues of government. You know, in recent months there have been so many high profile rising political stars who had personal issues that have become public. South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, Nevada's junior Senator John Ensign, presidential candidate John Edwards, then Senator David Vitter, you know, what you think this means?

Mayor VILLARAIGOSA: I have no idea. Let the pundits, you know, make those assessments. I can only tell you that in my own situation, I've certainly tried to learn from those mistakes. And these things occur all the time, too often unfortunately. But, when they occur to people who are high profile or in the news, they get in the news. I dare say, there are probably people where you work who've had some of those situations but they are not necessarily in the news and so they don't get the same kind of attention.

MARTIN: Point taken. One of the items you have to tackle, we just mentioned you're starting your second term. I don't know whether you feel congratulations or condolences are more in order.

Mayor VILLARAIGOSA: Are you kidding? I feel congratulations. I'm not running for governor because I want to be mayor of Los Angeles. I want to take on these challenges. So I'm - it's a congratulations, I'm excited. I'm looking forward to the next four years. I know that we have many challenges before us but I've never shirked away from those challenges. And I'm ready, willing, and able.

MARTIN: Well, we wanted to talk about - we've been spending a lot of time talking about California, the state budget crisis. How is it specifically affecting Los Angeles? And I particularly wanted to ask you about Governor Schwarzenegger at one point wanted to take almost three billion dollars from taxes meant for local governments to help close the state's shortfalls. I wanted to ask your opinion of this. And how are the state issues specifically affecting your city?

Mayor VILLARAIGOSA: Well, Sacramento is currently in a meltdown situation. They have for a number of years lived beyond their means, not just this year during the crisis. But they've been in crisis for four or five years. And, so, you know, the problem there is structural, without question. It takes a two-thirds vote to pass a budget, one of only three states. Two-thirds vote to pass taxes, one of about 16 or so states that require that super majority. You've got term limits where legislators in the state assembly can only serve six years. And so you have the least experienced people dealing with the most serious problems. You have the initiative process that is broken where with a majority vote you can deny a whole group of people the fundamental right to liberty and happiness, the right to marry, but it takes a two-thirds vote to pass a budget. So the system is broken, the tax structure needs to be reformed. There are just a number of things that make California very difficult to manage in that situation.

You know, the federal government, when they have a budget crisis they just print more money. The state balances its budgets on the backs of cities, schools and counties. In the case of cities, we actually got to make the tough cuts and layoff people or retire them and we've got to cut services. And the problem here is the governor and the legislature are proposing to take a billion dollars from our cities through a gas tax.

Some are also talking about taking another two billion dollars through Proposition 1A, which would allow them to access our property tax dollars. And, well, the mayors of the 10 largest cities have said, you can't do that. You've got to be responsible here. You're going to have to balance your budget in the way that we do and live within your means.

MARTIN: So what're you going to do? As you mentioned that a number of the mayors have gotten together to oppose this and you also identify all these sort of long term governance issues that need to be addressed but you still have to balance your budget in the short term. What are you thinking about?

Mayor VILLARAIGOSA: Well, we're going to have to make tough decisions. We'll lose about 3,000 of the 12,000 general fund employees that work in the city of Los Angeles over the next year, through early retirement or layoff.

MARTIN: That's a quarter of your workforce.

Mayor VILLARAIGOSA: Yes. That's a lot of people. And that means that we're going to cut services to a level that we never done. But we're willing to be part of the solution even though we've already had to make our own Draconian cut. What we won't accept is the governor or the legislature saying that they're just going to take our money and we're going to stand here while the taxpayers of our cities, and in my case of Los Angeles, have to foot the bill. That's unacceptable.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us you are listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin and I'm speaking with Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. It's part of our Cities in Crisis series. Speaking of people who want to be a part of the solution, say they are, you're a Democrat, you initially supported Hillary Clinton for president. Then of course you signed on with Barack Obama. Do you see any sign that the stimulus plan he worked to get through Congress is having any effect in your city?

Mayor VILLARAIGOSA: Well, we are getting hundreds of millions of dollars to protect teachers in our schools. We're getting hundreds of millions of dollars for transportation in Los Angeles. We're getting a great deal of support from the federal government. It's the state government that's not giving enough support right now. You have a small group of people in the legislature who don't believe in government, who won't raise revenues no matter what, even if Rome is burning. And in this case, California is burning. So we're all held hostage by those small group of legislators. So my criticism lies more with Sacramento than it does with Washington, D.C. and certainly not with this president.

MARTIN: I wanted to ask you, when you last visited with us one of the things you talked about was your desire to make Los Angeles the nation's greenest big city. And I wanted to ask if you feel that given current economic circumstances that you are able to make any progress toward that goal, and if so, what progress?

Mayor VILLARAIGOSA: Well, there is no question we made progress. We were one of the dirtiest public utilities in the United States of America when I became mayor with about less than three percent renewables, green power. Today we are about almost 11 percent renewables on an annualized basis. We will be at 20 percent by 2010. We recycle more trash than any big city in the country, about 62 percent, so we are greening the city. We are focused on making ourselves more sustainable. We have the toughest green building standards in the United States of America.

And we're real excited about what we've been able to do. The economy can hurt that effort but we actually see a way out of the economic doldrums through the green economy, where we are going to try to create good jobs and green jobs here in the city of Los Angeles.

MARTIN: Mr. Mayor, how will you know you've succeeded by the end of this second term? Particularly in such a way that would make it worthwhile for you to have given up the chance to go back to Sacramento, to do all the things that you talked about?

Mayor VILLARAIGOSA: When you tackle the big problems of public education and sustainability and public safety, we're the safest, second safest big city in America. Crime is down eight years in a row, made a lot of progress. But we've got a lot of work to do. So we're going to chronicle that in every area - in the environment, in education, in jobs, in the economy, in public safety. We're going to lay out what we still need to do. And I've never shirked from dreaming big and also holding myself to high standards. And my hope and my expectation is we're going to meet those standards, but one thing's for sure, we're going to put everything we've got to get there.

MARTIN: Well, Mr. Mayor, you've been very generous with your time, and we appreciate it. One more thing: Congratulations on those Lakers.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: But the Dodgers have not won a title since 1988. So in the last five seconds we have left, give me your best pitch on why you think the Dodgers could beat my beloved Mets, should they meet in the World Series.

Mayor VILLARAIGOSA: We're in first place. We're going to win because Manny will be back, and we're going to have a great season after the All-Star game. We're going to do it.

MARTIN: We'll see. Antonio Villaraigosa is the mayor of Los Angeles. He begins his second term in office next week. He joined us from Los Angeles. Mr. Mayor, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mayor VILLARAIGOSA: Thank you, Michel.

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