Newsom and the board's challenge

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Newsom needs to decide whether he's serious when he says he wants to work with the supervisors on a budget

EDITORIAL The San Francisco supervisors took a huge step with the city budget this year: they essentially told the mayor that his approach was unacceptable, and that they were going to do it themselves.

The result — the document that the board's Budget Committee approved and sent back to Mayor Gavin Newsom — isn't perfect. But the members of that panel saved $40 million worth of programs from the mayor's budget ax and got rid of two particularly bad plans: privatizing health care at the county jails and allowing more condominium conversions.

The board members are also looking seriously at putting as much as $100 million in new taxes — progressive taxes — on the November ballot. Current plans include a modest increase in the hotel tax, an increase in the real-estate transfer tax on high-end properties, and a tax on commercial rents of more than $200,000 a year, which would be paired with a reduction in the payroll tax for small businesses.

Now Newsom, who is busy running for lieutenant governor, needs to decide whether he's serious when he says he wants to work with the supervisors on a budget everyone can accept.

On one level, the mayor doesn't have a lot of choice — if he vetoes the proposal the board sent him, there's a good chance the supervisors will override the veto. What he's more likely to do is simply refuse to spend the additional money the board wants to allocate — allowing his cuts to take effect, allowing critical services to die and community-based nonprofits to close, while that money just sits in a reserve fund (or gets allocated to the mayor's other priorities).

That would be a terrible statement for someone who claims he can be a positive force in Sacramento and who clearly wants to run for governor some day. The board has presented a budget that's still fairly moderate — the tax hikes aren't included in the spending plan, and most of what Newsom asked for is. It's the kind of plan that a Democrat who wants to run California some day ought to be embracing. Unfortunately, Newsom insists on running on the Republican platform of cuts only, no new taxes. (Although he's stuck a lot of hidden taxes, called fees, on small businesses.)

The mayor also has tried to use the budget process to kill some several ballot measures he doesn't like. He wants the supervisors to get rid of proposals that would give the board shared appointments to the Rent Board and the Recreation and Park Commission along with a plan mandating community policing. In essence, he's asked the supervisors to abandon other good-government reform policies in exchange for saving critical public services. That's apparently not illegal (although offering to trade votes is). At the very least, however, it's unseemly, and the board needs to make clear that it won't accept this sort of hostage-taking.

It the mayor wants to have any kind of a productive year — and show that he can actually work with legislators — he needs to sign the budget the board sends to him and agree to spend the money the way it's earmarked. Otherwise he'll be acting like the governor of California — and that politician's approval rating is about the lowest on record.

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