Editor’s Notes

Pub date May 13, 2008
WriterTim Redmond

› tredmond@sfbg.com

I was having lunch with an old friend the other day, and, as usual, we got through our lives and kids pretty quickly and wound up talking about tax policy. I’m a great date.

I was explaining to her — well, yeah, I was lecturing, at some volume — about the problem with sales taxes and the value of parcel taxes and income taxes, and somewhere along the line I realized that the progressive leadership in San Francisco needs to think a bit more about small business.

See, my friend’s husband runs a small company, and she isn’t happy about the way the city’s universal health plan is financed. "If this is so important to San Francisco," she asked, "why aren’t we all paying for it, instead of just businesses?" Her idea: finance the program with a new sales tax.

Well, I support Healthy San Francisco and I think that, all things considered, Sup. Tom Ammiano did an amazing job of putting together a plan that is actually working. Ammiano told me last week that more than 20,000 people — formerly uninsured people — have signed up. This is a very big deal.

I realize it’s also a pain for a lot of smaller businesses, in part because the rules — specifically designed to keep unscrupulous employers from cheating — are complicated and hard to follow. And for companies that are barely making it, the tab for insurance can be brutal.

That, of course, is the overall problem with employer-based health insurance. But it’s the system we’re working under, and the complexity of creating a completely different model in one city would be, to say the least, daunting. In fact, there were a lot of employers in this city, many big retail outlets and national chains, that could well afford to pay for employee health insurance but instead dumped their workers on the overburdened public health system.

And restaurants, which are whining the loudest, have managed to stick their customers with the added cost, which frankly isn’t such a terrible thing: people who eat out a lot can afford an extra buck so the kitchen help can see a doctor when they’re sick.

And as I (ever-so-gently and quietly) explained over my $12 sautéed prawns, sales taxes are horribly regressive, even worse than small-business taxes. I’m right; she’s wrong. We had a hell of a lunch.

But I think her frustration ran a bit deeper than this one issue, and I hear it from a lot of others too: small businesses don’t seem to be part of the progressive coalition.

I understand why: a lot of small business people are conservative, particularly on fiscal issues. It’s really annoying how often small merchants side with the Chamber of Commerce and the big downtown forces. You can’t get small business groups to support any new revenue measures.

And the progressive supervisors have done a lot for small businesses — starting with enacting limits on chain stores, which have protected locally owned shops in several commercial districts.

There’s a lot more we can do: I’m still pushing for a progressive business tax (cut taxes on the bottom, raise them on the top). And a city income tax would pay for health insurance and a lot more.

But right now, many community merchants are feeling ignored, and our next progressive candidate for mayor needs to think about that. It’s a potentially powerful constituency — but for all the wrong reasons, it’s going in all the wrong directions.