Written with Nima Maghame
While many San Francisco city officials have been trying to figure out how to close a projected budget deficit of more than $520 million, Mayor Gavin Newsom has spent the last month trying to make that spending gap even larger by aggressively pushing a variety of business tax cuts that economists say will do little to improve the local economy and could actually make it worse.
Newsom first proposed his so-called "local economic stimulus package" a year ago during his ill-fated run for governor, just as President Barack Obama was pushing his own economic stimulus plan. But unlike the federal government's $787 billion plan, about a third of which involved tax cuts demanded by conservatives, Newsom proposed to cut local business taxes while also deeply slashing local government spending and laying off hundreds of city workers.
Most economists say that's a terrible idea. In fact, a report issued at the time by Moody's Investor Services made it clear that every dollar of direct government spending adds about $1.60 into the economy (or $1.73 if it's on food stamps, the most stimulative spending government can make), whereas business tax cuts add only about $1 to the economy for every dollar spent.
We clashed with the Mayor's Office at the time on our Politics blog (see "Mayor Newsom doesn't understand economics," 2/13/09), with Newsom's spokesperson telling us the mayor was relying on the input of City Economist Ted Egan. But when we interviewed Egan about the issue, he agreed that it's a bad idea to slash government spending to pay for tax cuts.
"We were in no way saying you should cut taxes to stimulate the economy, particularly if it means reducing government spending," Egan told us then. And when we asked directly whether it's better for San Francisco's economy for the city to directly spend a dollar on payroll or to give that dollar away in a private sector tax break, he told us, "The consensus among economists is that most of the time government spending stimulates the economy more."
The Board of Supervisors basically ignored Newsom's proposal. But he revived it last month, expanding the proposals with even more private sector subsidies and making them the centerpiece of his Jan. 13 State of the City speech, publicly pushing it since then with a series of public events at businesses located in the city.
And this time — with the local economy still slow, projected city budget deficits bigger than ever, and little serious talk about how the city can bring in more money — it appears the proposals will be the subject of a series of hearings before Board of Supervisors' committees in the coming weeks.
Newsom's tax cut proposals include a proposal to waive the 1.5 percent payroll tax (the city's main business tax) for all new hires; extend and expand the payroll tax exemption for biotech companies (see "Biotech's bonanza," p. 12); give small businesses tax credits for their spending on health plans; and allow developers to pass one-third of their affordable housing in-lieu fees onto future homeowners.
Newsom and his Press Secretary Tony Winnicker have spoken euphorically about the proposals, saying they're desperately needed to spur the local economy. "We believe that enacting these tax incentives, particularly the payroll tax credit for new hires, is one of the single biggest things we can do for economic growth," Winnicker said.
Despite repeated questions about the economists' concerns over financing tax cuts with government spending cuts, we couldn't get them to address the tradeoff directly. "The mayor will support critical public services," was all Winnicker would say about the deep cuts that Newsom is expected to announce in his June 1 budget.