Newsom pushes business tax cuts and fee delays despite evidence they do more harm than good
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.
Sup. John Avalos, who chairs the Board of Supervisors Budget and Finance Committee, expressed more skepticism about the mayor's proposals. "Do tax breaks have the intended effect of stimulating the economy? As we underfund government services, are we getting a net gain or are we getting something taken away? For the very small businesses in my district, it's going to be trickle-down economics. It's very unrelated and unmeasurable in benefit," he told us.
David Noyola, board aide to President David Chiu, said his boss is supporting the biotech tax credit but reserving judgment on the rest. "It's going to be a cost-benefit analysis," Noyola said. "When we're talking about jobs, we're talking about public and private sector jobs, always."
While Egan's economic analysis predicts tax cuts will encourage some economic growth, even he is circumspect about the good it will do, particularly without finding a way to avoid deep cuts in city spending. "The truth of the matter is that our stimulus efforts are small because the city has relatively small power to affect the local economy," Egan told us.
That's the consensus economic opinion. Huge federal spending can help a national economy a little bit, but local economies are just different animals that local governments are largely powerless to really alter, particularly through tax cuts.
"I agree with Egan: city government has little power over the local economy," Mike Potepan, an urban development economist at San Francisco State University, told the Guardian.
Both economists agree that tying tax cuts to job creation or development stimulus is better than general tax cuts, but that neither is good if it means laying off more city workers.
"Research shows that by cutting taxes you have more business activity where studies show it is likely to effect employment," Potepan said. "On the other side, you have to think about revenue. Cities are going to have to balance their budgets, which could mean a cut in services."
Author Greg LeRoy expresses a more critical perspective in his book The Great American Jobs Scam: Corporate Tax Dodging and the Myth of Job Creation (1995, Berrett-Koehler), amassing evidence from economic studies and CEO surveys that corporate tax breaks, even those tied to new job creation, have almost no effect on private companies' decisions about where to locate and whether to hire.
"How can companies get away with this? Because the system is rigged. Corporations have it down to a science. They have learned how to chant 'jobs, jobs, jobs' to win huge corporate tax breaks — and still do whatever they wanted all along," LeRoy writes. "That's the Great American Jobs Scam: an intentionally constructed system that enables corporations to exact huge taxpayer subsidies by promising quality jobs — and lets them fail to deliver. The other benefit often promised — higher tax revenues — often proves false as well."
While proposing to forgo collecting millions of dollars in payroll taxes (the Controller's Office is still working on a projected total for the tax cut package), the Mayor's Office also wants to spur development of new housing with a proposal that would delay collection of needed affordable housing money by more than a decade.
After hearing mostly from a large crowd of desperate developers and construction workers during a Jan. 21 hearing on the proposal, the Planning Commission approved the package on a 4-3 vote, with the mayor's appointees in agreement and the board's appointees in dissent. It will be considered by the Board of Supervisors Land Use Committee sometime after Feb. 12.
The most controversial part of the fee reform package involves reducing the fee developers pay to support affordable housing by 33 percent, then charging a 1 percent transfer tax to subsequent buyers of those homes. Egan estimates developers would save almost $20,000 per housing unit, and that it would take an average of 16 years for the city to recover that money. But for high-rise luxury condos, the city would eventually recover about $27,000 per unit.
"It's a classic make-an-investment-now-to-get-more-later strategy," Michael Yarne, who crafted the policy for the Mayor's Office of Economic and Workforce Development at Newsom's direction, told the Guardian.
"If it makes it feasible for projects to be started, then it is worth passing," Tim Colen, a representative of San Francisco Housing Action, said at the Planning Commission hearing, expressing hope that it will help create desperately needed construction jobs and new market rate housing.
But affordable housing advocates and some progressives criticize the policy as completely backward, saying that affordable housing development is desperately needed now, during these tough economic times, rather than a policy that encourages more market rate housing and bails out bad investments made at the height of the real estate bubble.
"What the city needs to do is directly build affordable housing, for which there is a demand," affordable housing activist Calvin Welch told us. "The problem is that the banks don't want to lend these guys money because they know nobody can afford to buy houses at the prices that these guys are demanding."
Debra Walker, who is running for supervisor from District 6 and voted against the proposal when it came before the Building Inspection Commission (the sole vote on a commission dominated by mayoral appointees), agrees.
"The whole argument is that it stimulates development, but it doesn't," Walker said, arguing that the incremental gains (about 25 housing units per year, Egan estimates) will be offset by delayed affordable housing construction. "There would be more economic stimulus by using the fee to build more affordable housing."
Instead, it simply shifts resources to favored entities: from home owners to developers, in the case of the affordable housing fees, or in the case of the tax credits, from the public to the private sector. But Newsom's office just doesn't see it that way.
"The Guardian believes in protecting public sector employees over private sector employees," was how Winnicker formulated our understanding of what the economists are saying. "Most people don't work for the city, and if we can support private sector jobs, that adds to sales tax revenues and benefits the economy. Despite a short-term impact of the tax credit, that's a benefit."
Adam Lesser contributed to this report