The tax poll is seriously messed up


Chuck Nevius, who doesn't seem to like any taxes, weighed in this morning on a poll paid for by the city's Transportation Authority that, the way Nevius puts it, "[cast] doubt on whether it would be wise to put some tax issues on the ballot in November." His analysis of the numbers:

[W]hen it comes to the hotel, parking, business and real estate transfer tax, the voters had four responses: no, no, no and hell no.

His ideological soulmate over at the Ex, Ken Garcia, had a similar report. "San Francisco," he wrote, "is not in a tax-supporting mood."

But that's not how I read the poll at all.

You can see the actual document here. The first thing I'll note is that 67 percent of the people who responded were over 40. That's not a surprise; telephone polls skew older these days. (How many young people have land lines, which are the numbers primarily called by pollsters?) The second is that some of the questions are pretty close to incomprehensible. Imagine someone reading this to you over the phone and asking for a quick answer:

To provide loans to pay for seismic retrofits of certain multi-story wood structures at significant
risk of substantial damage and collapse during a major earthquake and funded by a qualified
governmental housing finance agency for permanent or long-term affordability, or single room
occupancy buildings owned by private parties, and pay related costs, shall the City and County
of San Francisco issue up to thirty nine million one hundred forty thousand dollars of general
obligation bonded indebtedness, subject to citizen oversight and regular audits?

But the most important thing is that the tax questions were more than misleading; they're phrased in a way that almost begs for a No. Here's the real-estate transfer tax question:

Shall the City and County of San Francisco increase the real property transfer tax on certain
properties by between $3.75 and $10.00 per $500.00 of value, depending on the overall
property value and exempting rent-restricted affordable housing units from the increased tax rate?

That sounds like the average person trying to buy or sell a house is going to get hit with more taxes. Actually, nobody's proposing a tax on low-end sales. If you asked the real question -- should people or businesses that sell property worth more than $5 million pay a slightly higher transfer tax -- you'd get a very different answer.

Here's another one:

Shall the City and County of San Francisco establish a progressive payroll expense tax rate
structure and impose a gross receipts tax on the rental of commercial real property?

My immediate response: What the hell does that mean? It sounds like higher taxes on payrolls and a new tax on rents. Sounds like it's bad for small business. Actually, that's an utterly inaccurate representation of the tax the Sup. David Chiu is proposing. How avbout an honest question: Should the city cut taxes on small businesses and make banks and insurance companies pay their fair share? I suspect that would poll a little higher.

You want a real snapshot of how a conservative, older groups of voters, the ones represented in this poll, feel about taxes? Check out question 13, which asks people if they agree or disagree with this statement:

It is crucial to have high quality streets, roads and public transit, even if it means raising taxes.

A full 71 percent said they agree.

I'm not arguing that it's going to be easy to pass any tax proposals on the fall ballot. But if you put the question the right way, and explain that these revenue measures impact primarily the wealthier residents and businesses and that they money is needed for essential public services, I think most voters are going to say Yes.


Voters know that increased taxes will just go to support increasing pension and benefit costs for city workers, not "high quality streets, roads and public transit." No one is interested in feeding that unsustainable pension system anymore.

Also, Nevius had another article today saying that Mirkarimi saw drafts of the poll questions and had the opportunity to correct them. If the questions were so bad, why didn't he fix them?

Posted by The Commish on Jul. 20, 2010 @ 1:12 pm

Thanks, Meg.

Posted by Guest LD on Jul. 20, 2010 @ 2:21 pm

Why is it so hard to believe San Franciscans don't want to pay more taxes?

We already pay more for:

Residential parking permits
Parking meters (and more meters)
Higher parking tickets (from ever more aggressive meter maids)

Many feel $6 Billion is plenty of money for a city of 800k people.

Posted by Guest on Jul. 20, 2010 @ 4:07 pm

Being gouged by meter maids and the like is regressive -- everyone pays, from the CEO to the lowly City employee. A progressive tax would only take revenue from the higher earners, such as a household making over $250k a year. Oregon voters passed such a tax in January. San Francisco could benefit from something along these lines.

Posted by Guest LD on Jul. 20, 2010 @ 4:57 pm

Are you proposing a City income tax? Cal. Rev. & Tax Code 17401.5 bars cities and counties from imposing income taxes. Are you proposing a flat "occupations tax" like that in Weekes v. City of Oakland? How would you make it progressive and not fall within 17401.5?

Oregon has different laws than California does. Best, Meg

Posted by The Commish on Jul. 20, 2010 @ 7:57 pm

Hey, try to park two yachts – we’re talking $. San Franciscans & reasonable facsimiles speak with one voice and agree we hatius some taxes, (i.e., meters, maids included). My poll says raise the bus fare to $5. Nenius is a gevius.

Posted by Guest on Jul. 20, 2010 @ 5:32 pm


They poll older people because old people are more likely to vote. The median age of those who actually cast their vote is 50. So if anything this poll is biased TOWARDS younger people.

And most people know from personal experience that taxes aimed at the rich eventually cost everyone. Eventually all properties in SF will be worth a million but I guarantee you that the limit on this tax will not be raised.

And taxes on business get passed onto the humble consumer through the inevitable price hieks that follow.

Posted by Folly on Jul. 21, 2010 @ 12:31 am

Hey Commish: We could legally impose an occupatinal license fee (similar to a city income tax) and exempt, say, the first $50,000 in income. No conflict with state law.

And no, Folly, taxes on the rich don't eventually hit everyone. My heirs, for example, will never have to pay an estate tax (unless I hit lotto or something.) There is no proposal for a transfer tax at $1 million, and even if there were such a plan, most San Franciscans are renters and don't buy or sell property at all, much less property worth more than $1 million.

Posted by tim on Jul. 21, 2010 @ 12:40 pm

The Guardian wants to "close the loop hole" on prop 13, but is always looking for ways to extort more money from the citizens by calling a tax a fee.

The credibility gab rears its ugly head again. The credibility gap never went away realy, we get it from establishment politicians like Avalos and Nixon, and their apologists in the media like Pat Buchanan and Tim Redmond.

Posted by matlock on Jul. 21, 2010 @ 1:37 pm

Tim: thank you for your reply, but I disagree with your analysis. As I read Weakes, the court only allowed the "license fee" because it didn't have the conventional attributes of an income tax. For example, it was non-graduated (i.e., it was flat) and generally didn't allow for deductions/exemptions. I think that a "license fee" that was progressive or had an exemption level would be too similar to the traditional notion of a tax and thus fall within the prohibition of Rev. & Tax Code 17041.5. Also, these sorts of taxes/license fees are rare and my guess is that one of the reasons they're rare is that it's tough to craft them so they don't discriminate against non-residents (and thus run afoul of Government Code 50026).

Posted by The Commish on Jul. 21, 2010 @ 3:16 pm

We have one of these on the ballot every single election in San Francisco. Does the seismic retrofitting never end? Once a retrofit ends new technology finds it's incomplete and a new one begins.

These seismic retrofits are a racket. And San Franciscans, the majority of which are not property owners, happily vote for them again and again and again thinking they'll never have to pay the bill.

Posted by Lucretia Snapples on Jul. 21, 2010 @ 1:19 pm

Mr. Matlock: I have never tried to disguise anything. I think we should have a city income tax. Unfortunately, the only thing the state allows is a tax on income earned in the city, which is called an employment license fee or some such shit. It's a tax; I'm in favor of it.

Commish, there might be legal trouble if you made it too progressive, but I don't see why you can't exempt the first $50,000 of income. Then it's already pretty progressive, since the lower-income folks don't pay at all. The advice I've heard from lawyers familiar with the Weekes case is that we could go pretty far on that level.

Posted by tim on Jul. 21, 2010 @ 5:09 pm

Tim, thanks. Reasonable minds can differ and your perspective/idea is interesting. I still think a system with an exemption would invite challenges. The dissent in Weakes pointed out the standard features of a municipal tax and noted that even a flat tax with an exemption was such a feature. I think that once you start including carve-outs (whether they be deductions, exemptions, exclusions, or credits) you can drift over the line from "license fee" to "tax" because you get into the territory of how the internal revenue code and California code defines tax.

I could also see a class of non-residents who commute into work in the city challenging it as discriminatory if they made more than the exemption (subjecting them to the tax) if a similar class of resident workers made below the exemption amount (so they'd pay no tax). Also, if the evidence showed that a large percentage of commuter workers were paying tax after the exemption while a large percentage of resident workers were paying no tax, it might raise discrimination challenges. Non-residents would cry foul that it's a discriminatory commuter tax.

Posted by The Commish on Jul. 21, 2010 @ 9:33 pm

I realize this is tricky; people who work in the city but live elsewhere might challenge it. But New York City has had a commuter tax for years; the argument that commuters use city services but don't pay for them seems to work in the courts.

Of course, the Weekes court was different from the Cal Supreme Court today, but since an income tax is far better than sales taxes or most of the other ways cities raise revenue, it's worth looking at. 

Posted by tim on Jul. 22, 2010 @ 8:51 am

For every person who uses city services we find out where they come from and send a bill there.

When another city sends their hobo's on greyhound here to use up services we send that city a bill. If they don't pay we will threaten a boycott of that city.

There has to be some way to satiate progressive greed and monumental entitlement other than harassing people who work or vacation here. These moon bat schemes always seem to to involve harassing people who are not part of the problem.

The interesting thing is progressive note the European's as an example of how to run a country, in the case of San Francisco and the monumentally entitled progressives they should note Greece as an example. A huge fiscal wreck.

Posted by matlock on Jul. 22, 2010 @ 10:41 am

Go back to reading your archive of Katzenjammer Kids, Matlock. Also, maybe we should just add a fee for uneducated commenters who don't know when to apostrophize. "Apostrophe" is from the Greek apostrophos. God, you people suck up all OUR public money for education, Internet maintenance, and availability of cheap wireless connections -- and then you just expect us to sit around while you do nothing, literally flaunting your ignorance in our faces? I'm sending a bill to your school for your laziness and refusal to contribute to societal discourse in a way that I deem proper. 

Posted by marke on Jul. 22, 2010 @ 12:43 pm

I just got off the phone with Ruth Bernstein, who works for the research firm that did the poll, and she shared some of the methodology with me. The pollsters started with a list of SF registered voters, then used data from a private vendor to match those voters with phone numbers. Since a lot of people put their phone numbers on their voter reg cards (although it's not required) that's relatively easy. And some of those numbers are cell phones. Then they adjust for the demographics of likely voters. So if the poll skews old, that's because the polling company thinks older people are more likely to vote. Still, she did say "it's gotten harder to reach young people" since they use cell phones that aren't listed, and if they don't put that phone number on the card when they register to vote, there's no easy way to get the digits.

Fair enough. I still think the questions were utterly one-sided.

And Matlock: "hobo's" (sic)? That's a word with a credible derivation that actually meant something once, but does not refer to the population of homeless that you are trying to demonize. From Wikipedia, which has a fairly accurate historical piece:

"A Hobo is a migratory  worker or homeless vagabond, often penniles.1] The term originated in the western -- probably northwestern -- United States during the last decade of the 19th century. Unlike tramps, who worked only when they were forced to, and bums, who didn't work at all, hobos were workers who wandered."




Posted by tim on Jul. 22, 2010 @ 11:09 am

Why do only some groups have to pay for the services they use?

If people who come into the city to work need to pay for the services they use; other than through the myriad of taxes and fees they already pay, then why doesn't everyone else have too?

Why do the progressives encourage the underground drug and labor economy and yet not find a way to harass them out of their cash? Why do some identifiable groups need to have a fee and some don't?

It's hard to think like the entitled progressive but why isn't there a fee for people walk on the cities sidewalk, ride their bikes on the cities street or breath air created by city trees? The city should license drug dealers to pay for OD's at general, incorporate gang's to pay for paramedics, etc... The progressive don't mind ignoring laws so whats the big deal with licensing and taxing and feeing crime?

Just find out where our hobos come from and send a bill to that city, then threaten to boycott them if they don't pay. That should really add to our cities laughingstock quality.

It's all obviously about progressive greed, entitlement and the political agenda not about paying for services used. Finding hew ways to tax and fee and loophole the citizens is just about getting over and not any real sense of fairness.

Posted by matlock on Jul. 22, 2010 @ 3:19 pm