A fall revenue measure

Pub date June 4, 2008
SectionEditorialSectionNews & Opinion

EDITORIAL If you think the June ballot was busy, wait until November. San Francisco will be electing six district supervisors. The mayor and organized labor are going to be pushing the mother of all bond acts, roughly $1 billion to rebuild San Francisco General Hospital. There’s likely to be a public power charter amendment mandating that the city mount a real effort to take over the electric grid. There will probably be a major affordable-housing initiative that includes a set-aside for low-income housing and perhaps some affordable-housing bond money. It’s shaping up as an election that will change the city’s direction for years to come — but there’s still a crucial piece missing.

There’s no money.

Public power will, of course, generate vast amounts of new revenue, but not immediately: the process of setting up the system and fighting Pacific Gas and Electric Co. in court could drag out for several years. That, of course, is all the more reason to get started — if the city had done this years ago, we wouldn’t have a budget crisis today.

But in the meantime, right now, San Francisco needs cash — and there needs to be a November ballot measure that brings in new revenue to pay for more affordable housing and to save the services Mayor Gavin Newsom is cutting.

It’s tough to pass new taxes in California. Most of the time, state law mandates a two-thirds majority vote by the people to enact any new form of taxation. But it’s a bit easier when the supervisors are up for election; on those ballots, the threshold is only 50 percent. And with at least four tightly contested supervisorial races bringing out voters, labor bringing out the troops for the General Hospital bond, and the Democratic Party pushing to get voters out for Barack Obama, the turnout should be excellent.

So if there’s ever a good time to try to pass a tax measure, November 2008 ought to fit the bill.

All sorts of tax proposals have floated around City Hall in recent years and some of them — for example, a higher real-estate transfer tax — were defeated at the ballot. Some groups will oppose any tax proposal, and it’s hard to find constituencies that want to work hard for higher taxes.

So the key to crafting a revenue measure is to ensure that it’s as progressive as possible, and that it takes into account the concerns of those small businesses and homeowners who aren’t rich and can’t afford huge new levies. We see two good options:

1. A city income tax. This hasn’t been seriously discussed since the 1980s, but it ought to be. California law bars cities from collecting traditional income taxes — that is, San Francisco can’t tax the incomes of everyone who lives here. But in 1978 the state Supreme Court ruled that cities can tax income earned from employment in the city. The upside is that a San Francisco employment income tax would hit commuters, a huge group who use city services and don’t pay for them. The downside is that people who live here but work, say, in Silicon Valley would escape the tax.

But overall, income taxes are the fairest method of collecting revenue, and a city tax could be set to hit hardest on the wealthiest. The city could exempt, say, the first $50,000 of earned income, levy a modest (say, 1 percent) tax on the next $50,000, then increase the marginal percentage so that people with enormous salaries pay as much as 2 or 3 percent.

The beauty of this: most of the people who paid the top-end income tax would simply write it off their federal income taxes — meaning this would be a direct shift of cash from Washington DC to San Francisco. And it would come primarily from people who have already received a huge tax windfall from the Bush administration.

Yes, some people would cheat. Some businesses would try to claim their employees all really worked out of a satellite office in another city. But New York City has a municipal income tax. So does Philadelphia. They manage to deal with the cheaters. The supervisors at least ought to consider the idea.

2. A new business tax. Almost everyone agrees that San Francisco’s business taxes are unfair. The city places a flat tax on businesses — a small merchant pays the same percentage as a giant corporation — and some partnerships, like law firms, get away with paying no city taxes at all. The best way to fix that may be to create a single, progressive business tax (probably on gross receipts), with no loopholes, that exempts the first $100,000 or so and actually lowers the levy on small businesses while significantly raising it on big ones. Most small businesses would get an actual tax cut while the big guys would pick up the tab.

Together, a tax package like this could bring in the $250 million a year or so the city needs — and some of the money could go to cutting, say, Muni fares or reducing the sales tax so working-class San Franciscans would pay less.

Almost everyone at City Hall knows the current tax system is unfair, regressive, and inadequate. We’ve been calling for the supervisors to do something about it for years now. November 2008 seems like an excellent time.