Newsom and his business allies work to kill proposed revenue measures by any means necessary
Mayor Gavin Newsom and his business allies are actively trying to sabotage the various revenue measures that have been put forth by the labor movement and progressive members of the Board of Supervisors, employing deceptive rhetoric, sneaky tactics, and a refusal to bargain in good faith.
In fact, Newsom — the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor — is so averse to supporting anything that could be called a "tax" that he rejected a hard-won compromise measure created by powerful developers, affordable housing advocates, a pro-business think tank, the building trades, and his own directors of housing and economic development.
Just as that story was breaking in the New York Times (produced by Bay Citizen) on July 9, members of the Board of Supervisors Budget and Finance Committee discovered that Newsom's proposed ballot measure to close loopholes in the city's hotel tax that favored airline employees and online travel companies — a widely supported change, but one worth just $6 million per year — contains language that would nullify any increases in the hotel tax. Earlier in the week, labor unions turned in signatures on an initiative to increase the hotel tax by 2 percent, which would bring in more than $30 million per year.
"This poison pill is an intentionally deceptive, underhanded move," Gabriel Haaland, an organizer with Service Employees International Union Local 1021, which sponsored the hotel tax, told us. "It's so frustrating. It's not even a good faith fight. He's trying to create confusion and fool the voters. If our measure passes fair and square, it should be implemented."
Meanwhile, Newsom and business groups have been attacking a reform measure by Board President David Chiu that would make the currently flat payroll tax more progressive, exempt more small businesses from paying it, and create a commercial rent tax to spread the tax burden more widely than the 10 percent of businesses who now pay tax to the city.
Critics complained that the measure would hurt local businesses — but that's just not true. The city's Office of Economic Analysis concluded that Chiu's original proposal would have no effect on private sector jobs and would generate $34 million annually for the city, preserving some government jobs and spending.
Then Chiu amended the measure to spare even more small businesses. Now the OEA says that the measure would actually create private sector jobs — and still bring $28 million in to the city. Yet Newsom and the business community are still withholding their support.
This trio of Machiavellian moves comes just a week after Newsom pulled out of budget negotiations with board progressives concerning about $40 million in board add-backs to programs that Newsom proposed to cut after they wouldn't agree to his precondition that they withdraw unrelated measures proposed for the November ballot, such as splitting appointments to the Rent, Recreation and Park, and Municipal Transportation Agency boards and requiring police officers to do foot patrols.
The series of events has led many progressives to say that conservative ideological blinders — a knee-jerk opposition to anything that saves government jobs and services or that Republicans might criticize — is the only logical explanation for the intransigent stance adopted downtown and by Newsom.
"It's ideological. It's not economic, and it's not even political," said Calvin Welch, the affordable housing activist who helped negotiate the transfer tax compromise with developer Oz Erickson, San Francisco Planning Urban Research Association director Gabriel Metcalf, Mayor's Office of Housing Director Doug Shoemaker, and others.
That measure would have created a transfer tax on sales of properties over $875,000 and generated approximately $50 million annually for affordable housing (funds that were drastically reduced in Newsom's proposed 2010-11 budget) while cutting in half the current requirements and fees on market-rate developers to create below-market-rate units. The plan would have stimulated both types of housing and created desperately needed construction work — an approach those involved called an elegant solution to several problems.
"To me, this was a win-win, solving two problems that are each a big deal," Metcalf told us. "I don't know what his reasons were for not supporting it. I was surprised."
But Welch said, "It collapsed straight up because the mayor didn't want to support a tax." Although Newsom told the Times it was because there wasn't broad enough consensus yet, "the mayor's reason is whole-cloth bullshit," Welch said, noting the role of the Mayor's Office in brokering the deal. "The mayor walks away from it because everyone wasn't in the room? Well, it's your room, motherfucker. Show some leadership."
Newsom Press Secretary Tony Winnicker refused to discuss these issues by phone, responding to our written inquires by noting that Newsom opposes taxes and thinks the best way to address budget deficits are privatizing city services and pension reform (although he opposes Public Defender Jeff Adachi's initiative, the only pension reform measure on the fall ballot).
"The mayor is opposed to the Board of Supervisors' proposals to increase taxes because they're not needed to balance the budget and they will strangle our still young economic recovery," Winnicker wrote, refusing to answer follow-up questions or support a statement about Chiu's measure that the OEA concludes is not accurate.
Like many political observers of all stripes, those from downtown and progressive circles, Welch criticized Newsom for his lack of engagement with city business and its long-term fiscal outlook, contrasting him with former Mayor Willie Brown, who met regularly with former Board of Supervisors President Tom Ammiano even as the two ran a bitter campaign for mayor against one another in 1999. "They dealt with the city's business like two adults who cared about the city," he said.
Welch acknowledged that there was still work to be done building political support for the transfer tax measure. He and other progressives would have had to win over city employee unions who wouldn't like the budget set-aside aspect, and Erickson and Metcalf would need to placate some of their downtown allies who oppose taxes on ideological grounds. But given how downtown groups are behaving right now, that might not have been an easy sell.
"There are members of the small business community that are averse to any taxes," said Regina Dick-Endrizzi, director of the city's Office of Small Business and staffer to the Small Business Commission, which was withholding a recommendation on the Chiu measure but planned to meet again to consider it July 12 (look for an update on the sfbg.com Politics blog). She said the small business community is having tough times and "they are just not sensitive to keeping city workers employed."
Larger commercial interests are being even more forceful in opposing the revenue measures. While a parade of workers, social service providers, and progressive activists testifying at the July 9 Budget Committee hearing implored supervisors to place all the proposed revenue measures on the ballot, representatives from the Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA) and San Francisco Chamber of Commerce were the only two speakers urging supervisors to drop the measures and focus instead on creating private sector jobs.
"You're trying to create a little revenue here and it's not going to work," said Ken Cleaveland, director of BOMA SF, arguing that big banks and financial services companies — entities exempt from the payroll tax that Chiu is hoping to target with the commercial rent tax — will buy their buildings to avoid paying the tax. "They aren't going to create more jobs and they really aren't going to create more revenue."
Yet Chiu noted that it was the business community and fiscal conservatives who pushed to create the Office of Economic Analysis, whose work they have regularly used to attack progressive legislation. Now that the office has concluded that a piece of progressive legislation is good for the local economy, Chiu told Cleaveland and the Chamber spokesperson Rob Black at the hearing, "I ask you to respect the work this office has done."
Black said the Chamber board will consider Chiu's amended legislation, but said businesses are in no mood to help the city. "How many times have you gone to your neighborhood merchant and had them say, 'Gee, my rent's too cheap'?<0x2009>" he said during his testimony.
Yet Chiu said landlords of small tenants (those paying less than $65,000 in rent per year) are exempt from the rent tax and only 26 percent of SF businesses would pay any city business tax under his plan. "I hope the mayor will support this proposal and the business community will give it a good look," Chiu said as the hearing ended.
At the beginning of the hearing, Chiu framed the dire situation facing San Francisco, citing Controller's Office figures showing this year's $500 million budget deficit (out of a $6 billion total budget) will be followed by a $700 million deficit next year and a $800 million gap the following budget cycle as a result of a deep structural budget imbalance.
"We have budget deficits as far as the eye can see," Chiu said at the hearing. "We have to consider measures that will provide more stable sources of revenue."
He also noted that city employee unions have agreed to give back about $250 million in salary and had their ranks reduced by about 2,000 workers in the last two years. So he and the other progressive supervisors say it's time for the rest of San Francisco to help address the problem.
"We, as a city, should not be trying to balance this budget simply through cutting," Sup. David Campos said.
Sup. John Avalos, the committee chair, amended his transfer tax measure in the wake of Newsom's rejection of the deal by making it a simple 2 percent tax on properties that sell for more than $5 million, and 2.5 percent tax on properties over $10 million. He estimates it will bring in about $25 million per year from the city's wealthiest corporations and landlords.
"That's who we're socking it to," Avalos told us, saying he was disappointed the compromise fell through. "The amendment is going to be more progressive than what was originally planned."
Even Sup. Sean Elsbernd, a strong fiscal conservative who announced early in the hearing, "You want to do that [balance future budgets] by adding taxes, but I want to do it through ongoing service cuts," later told the Guardian that he was intrigued by the amendments Avalos and Chiu made to their measures and has not yet taken a position on them.
Sup. Ross Mirkarimi is also sponsoring a measure to increase the city's tax on parking lot operators from 25 percent to 35 percent, the first change to that tax in 30 years, and will include valet parking for the first time. The measure would bring in up to $24 million per year, and OEA analysis shows it would decrease the number of cars trips by 1.3 percent, another benefit.
SFMTA supports the measure, with board member Cameron Beach testifying that the money will be used to subsidize Muni and "it links the use of private automobiles and is consistent with the city's transit-first policy." Mirkarimi, who chairs the Transportation Authority, also has proposed a $10 local vehicle license fee surcharge that would bring in another $5 million per year for Muni.
All the revenue measures require six votes by the full Board of Supervisors, which is scheduled to consider them July 20, after which they would need a simple majority approval by voters in November to take effect.
The mayor has the authority to directly place measures on the ballot, so the committee hearing on his hotel tax loophole measure and a $39 million general obligation bond that he's proposing to create a revolving loan fund for private sector seismic improvements were mere formalities, so supervisors criticized aspects of each but were unable to make changes.
Avalos even grudgingly acknowledged the hotel tax poison pill was an effective way to kill that revenue source, saying at the hearing, "This is very smart. I don't agree with it, but it's very smart."
Haaland was less charitable, criticizing a provision designed to confuse voters. "This kind of move means both measures won't pass because now we have to oppose [Newsom's measure]," he said, criticizing the mayor for running away from the hard decisions facing the city. "He won't be around next year, when we have an even bigger structural budget deficit, to clean up this mess. Absent new revenue sources, this city starts to fall apart."