Endorsements 2012: San Francisco propositions

PROPOSITION A

CITY COLLEGE PARCEL TAX

YES

The scathing accreditation report by the Western Association of Schools talks about governance problems at the San Francisco Community College District — a legitimate matter of concern. But most of what threatens the future of City College is a lack of money.

Check out the accreditation letter; it’s on the City College website. Much of what it says is that the school is trying to do too much with limited resources. There aren’t enough administrators; that’s because, facing 20 percent cuts to its operating budget, the college board decided to save front-line teaching jobs. Student support services are lacking; that’s because the district can barely afford to keep enough classes going to meet the needs of some 90,000 students. On the bigger picture, WASC and the state want City College to close campuses and concentrate on a core mission of offering two-year degrees and preparing students to transfer to four-year institutions. That’s because the state has refused to fund education at an adequate level, and there’s not enough money to both function as a traditional junior college and serve as the training center for San Francisco’s tech, hospitality and health-care industry, provide English as a second language classes to immigrants and offer new job skills and rehabilitation to the workforce of the future.

It’s fair to say that WASC would have found some problems at City College no matter what the financial situation (and we’ve found more — the nepotism and corruption under past boards has been atrocious). But the only way out of this mess is either to radically scale back the school’s mission — or to increase its resources. We support the latter alternative.

Prop. A is a modest parcel tax — $79 dollars a year on each property lot in the city. Parcel taxes are inherently unfair — a small house in Hunters Point pays as much as a mansion in Pacific Heights or a $500 million downtown office building. But that’s the result of Prop. 13, which leaves the city very few ways to raise taxes on real property. In the hierarchy of progressive tax options, parcel taxes are better than sales taxes. And the vast majority of San Francisco homeowners and commercial property owners get a huge benefit from Prop. 13; a $6 a month additional levy is hardly a killer.

The $16 million this tax would raise annually for the district isn’t enough to make up for the $25 million a year in state budget cuts. But at least the district would be able to make reasonable decisions about preserving most of its mission. This is one of the most important measures on the ballot; vote yes.

PROPOSITION B

PARKS BOND

YES

There are two questions facing the voters: Does the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department need money to fix up badly decrepit, sometimes unsafe facilities, and build out new park areas, particularly in underserved neighborhoods? Has the current administration of the department so badly mismanaged Rec-Park, so radically undermined the basic concept of public access to public space, so utterly alienated neighborhoods and communities all over the city, that it shouldn’t be trusted with another penny?

And if your answer to both is yes, how the hell do you vote on Prop. B?

It’s a tough one for us. The Guardian has never, in 46 years, opposed a general obligation bond for anything except jail or prisons. Investing in public infrastructure is a good thing; if anything, the cautious folks at City Hall, who refuse to put new bonds on the ballot until old ones are paid off, are too cautious about it. Spending public money (paid by increased property taxes in a city where at least 90 percent of real estate is way under taxed thanks to Prop. 13) creates jobs. It’s an economic stimulus. It adds to the value of the city’s resources. In this case, it fixes up parks. All of that is good; it’s hard to find a credible case against it.

Except that for the past few years, under the administrations of Mayors Gavin Newsom and Ed Lee and the trusteeship of Rec-Park Directors Jared Blumenfeld and Phil Ginsburg, the city has gone 100 percent the wrong way. Parks are supposed to be public resources, open to all; instead, the department has begun charging fees for what used to be free, has been turning public facilities over to private interests (at times kicking the public out), and has generally looked at the commons as a source of revenue. It’s a horrible precedent. It makes us sick.

Ginsburg told us that he’s had no choice — deep budget cuts have forced him to look for money wherever he can find it, even if that means privatizing the parks. But Ginsburg also admitted to us that, even as chief of staff under Newsom, he never once came forward to push for higher taxes on the wealthy, never once suggested that progressive revenue sources might be an option. Nor did any of the hacks on the Rec-Park Commission. Instead, they’ve been busy spending tens of thousands of dollars on an insane legal battle to evict the Haight Ashbury Neighborhood Council’s recycling center — entirely because rich people in the Haight don’t want poor people coming through their elite neighborhood to cash in bottles and cans for a little money.

So now we’re supposed to cough up another $195 million to enable more of this?

Well, yes. We’re not happy to be endorsing Prop. B, but the bottom line is simple: The bond money will go for things that need to be done. There are, quite literally, parks in the city where kids are playing in unsafe and toxic conditions. There are rec centers that are pretty close to falling apart. Those improvements will last 50 years, well beyond the tenure of this mayor of Rec-Park director. For the long-term future of the park system, Prop. B makes sense.

If the measure fails, it may send Lee and Ginsburg a message. The fact that so many neighborhood leaders are opposing it has already been a signal — one that so far Ginsburg has ignored. We’re going Yes on B, with all due reservations. But this commission has to go, and the sooner the supervisors can craft a charter amendment to give the board a majority of the appointments to the panel the better.+

PROPOSITION C

AFFORDABLE HOUSING TRUST FUND

YES

This measure is about who gets to live in San Francisco and what kind of city this will be in 20 years. If we leave it up to market forces and the desires of developers, about 85 percent of the housing built in San Francisco will be affordable only by the rich, meaning the working class will be forced to live outside the city, clogging regional roadways and transit systems and draining San Francisco of its cultural diversity and vibrancy. And that process has been accelerated in recent years by the latest tech bubble, which city leaders have decided to subsidize with tax breaks, causing rents and home prices to skyrocket.

Mayor Ed Lee deserves credit for proposing this Housing Trust Fund to help offset some of that impact, even if it falls way short of the need identified in the city’s Housing Element, which calls for 60 percent of new housing construction to be affordable to prevent gentrification. We’re also not thrilled that Prop. C actually reduces the percentage of housing that developers must offer below market rates and prevents that 12 percent level from later being increased, that it devotes too much money to home ownership assistance at the expense of the renters who comprise the vast majority of city residents, and that it depends on the passage of Prop.E and would take $15 million from the increased business taxes from that measure, rather than restoring years of cuts to General Fund programs.

But Prop. C was a hard-won compromise, with the affordable housing folks at the table, and they got most of what they wanted. (Even the 12 percent has a long list of exceptions and thus won’t apply to a lot of new market-rate housing.) And it has more chance of actually passing than previous efforts that were opposed by the business community and Mayor’s Office. This measure would commit the city to spending $1.5 billion on affordable housing projects over the next 30 years, with an initial $20 million annual contribution steadily growing to more than $50 million annually by 2024, authorizing and funding the construction of 30,000 new rental units throughout the city. With the loss of redevelopment funds that were devoted to affordable housing, San Francisco is a city at risk, and passage of Prop. C is vital to ensuring that we all have a chance of remaining here. Vote yes.

PROPOSITION D

CONSOLIDATING ODD-YEAR LOCAL ELECTIONS

YES

There’s a lot of odd stuff in the San Francisco City Charter, and one of the twists is that two offices — the city attorney and the treasurer — are elected in an off-year when there’s nothing else on the ballot. There’s a quaint kind of charm to that, and some limited value — the city attorney is one of the most powerful officials in local government, and that race could get lost in an election where the mayor, sheriff, and district attorney are all on the ballot.

But seriously: The off-year elections have lower turnout, and cost the city money, and it’s pretty ridiculous that San Francisco still does it this way. The entire Board of Supervisors supports Prop. D. So do we. Vote yes.

PROPOSITION E

GROSS RECEIPTS TAX

YES

Over the past five years, Board of Supervisors President David Chiu estimates, San Francisco has cut about $1.5 billion from General Fund programs. It’s been bloody, nasty, awful. The budget reductions have thrown severely ill psych patients out of General Hospital and onto the streets. They’ve forced the Recreation and Parks Department to charge money for the use of public space. They’ve undermined everything from community policing to Muni maintenance.

And now, as the economy starts to stabilize a bit, the mayor wants to change the way businesses are taxed — and bring an additional $28.5 million into city coffers.

That’s right — we’ve cut $1.5 billion, and we’re raising taxes by $28.5 million. That’s less than 2 percent. It’s insane, it’s inexcusable, it’s utterly the wrong way to run a city in 2012. It might as well be Mitt Romney making the decision — 98 percent cuts, 2 percent tax hikes.

Nevertheless, that’s where we are today — and it’s sad to say this is an improvement from where the tax discussion started. At first, Mayor Lee didn’t want any tax increase at all; progressive leaders had to struggle to convince him to allow even a pittance in additional revenue.

The basic issue on the table is how San Francisco taxes businesses. Until the late 1990s, the city had a relatively rational system — businesses paid about 1.5 percent of their payroll or gross receipts, whichever was higher. Then 52 big corporations, including PG&E, Chevron, Bechtel, and the Gap, sued, arguing that the gross receipts part of the program was unfair. The supervisors caved in to the legal threat and repeal that part of the tax system — costing the city about $30 million a year. Oh, but then tech companies — which have high payrolls but often, at least at first, low gross receipts — didn’t want the payroll tax. The same players who opposed the other tax now called for its return, arguing that taxing payroll hurts job growth (which is untrue and unfounded, but this kind of dogma doesn’t get challenged in the press). So, after much discussion and debate, and legitimate community input, the supervisors unanimously approved Prop. E — which raises a little more money, but not even as much as the corporate lawsuit in the 1990s set the city back. It’s not a bad tax, better than the one we have now — it brings thousands of companies the previously paid no tax at all into the mix (sadly, some of them small businesses). It’s somewhat progressive — companies with higher receipts pay a higher rate. We can’t argue against it — the city will be better off under Prop. E than it is today. But we have to look around our battered, broke-ass city, shake our poor bewildered heads and say: Is this really the best San Francisco can do? Sure, vote yes on E. And ask yourself why one of the most liberal cities in America still lets Republican economic theory drive its tax policy.

PROPOSITION F

WATER AND ENVIRONMENT PLAN

NO, NO, NO

Reasonable people can disagree about whether San Francisco should have ever dammed the Tuolumne River in 1923, flooding the Hetch Hetchy Valley and creating an engineering marvel that has provided the city with a reliable source of renewable electricity and some of the best urban drinking water in the world ever since. The project broke the heart of famed naturalist John Muir and has caused generations since then to pine for the restoration of a valley that Muir saw as a twin to his beloved nearby Yosemite Valley.

But at a time when this country can’t find the resources to seriously address global warming (which will likely dry up the Sierra Nevada watershed at some point in the future), our deteriorating infrastructure, and myriad other pressing problems, it seems insane to even consider spending billions of dollars to drain this reservoir, restore the valley, and find replacement sources of clean water and power.

You can’t argue with the basic facts: There is no way San Francisco could replace all the water that comes in from Hetch Hetchy without relying on the already-fragile Delta. The dam also provides 1.7 billion kilowatt hours a year of electric power, enough to meet the needs of more than 400,000 homes. That power now runs everything from the lights at City Hall to Muni, at a cost of near zero. The city would lose 42 percent of its energy generation if the dam went away.

Besides, the dam was, and is, the lynchpin of what’s supposed to be a municipal power system in the city. As San Francisco, with Clean Power SF, moves ever close to public power, it’s insane to take away this critical element of any future system.

On its face, the measure merely requires the city to do an $8 million study of the proposal and then hold a binding vote in 2016 that would commit the city to a project estimated by the Controller’s Office to cost somewhere between $3 billion and $10 billion. Yet to even entertain that possibility would be a huge waste of time and money.

Prop. F is being pushed by a combination of wishful (although largely well-meaning) sentimentalists and disingenuous conservatives like Dan Lungren who simply want to fuck with San Francisco, but it’s being opposed by just about every public official in the city. Vote this down and let’s focus our attention on dealing with real environmental and social problems.

PROPOSITION G

CORPORATE PERSONHOOD

YES

If San Francisco voters pass Prop. G, it won’t put any law into effect. It’s simply a policy statement that sends a message: Corporations are not people, and it’s time for the federal government to tackle the overwhelming and deeply troubling control that wealthy corporations have over American politics.

Prop. G declares that money is not speech and that limits on political spending improve democratic processes. It urges a reversal of the notorious Citizens United vs. Federal Elections Commission Supreme Court decision.

A constitutional amendment, and any legal messing with free speech, has serious potential problems. If corporations are limited from spending money on politics, could the same apply to unions or nonprofits? Could such an amendment be used to stop a community organization from spending money to print flyers with political opinions?

But it’s a discussion that the nation needs to have, and Prop. G is a modest start. Vote yes.