Don’t privatize cab permits

Pub date January 20, 2009
SectionEditorialSectionNews & Opinion

EDITORIAL In tough times, political leaders with no backbone for making hard decisions tend to look for easy, short-term fixes. And Mayor Gavin Newsom’s proposal to auction off taxicab permits to the highest bidder is just that — a quick fix with serious long-term problems. In fact, it amounts to the privatization of a lucrative public asset.

A bit of background: since 1978, when then-Sup. Quentin Kopp authored a measure called Proposition K, San Francisco has issued some 1,500 taxi permits, known as medallions, to working cab drivers. Under Prop. K, the medallions can’t be owned by corporations, and they can’t be bought and sold as speculative commodities. They’re owned by the city, and only people who actually drive cabs for a living can use them.

There’s a logic to that. The permits are valuable — a medallion holder not only has the right to drive a cab, he or she can lease that permit to other drivers for additional shifts. Since a taxi can be on the road 24 hours a day, the lease income is substantial, roughly $30,000 a year. But only active drivers get that benefit; nobody can hold a permit, sit at home (or work another job), and just collect that cash.

The process isn’t perfect. The waiting list for a medallion takes more than 10 years. Some medallion holders cling to their permits long after they should have retired (and thus keep driving when they should no longer be on the road). There’s no process for compensating a permit holder who becomes disabled.

But those are issues that can be addressed. The basic fact is that San Francisco has taken the position that the public benefit — a license to drive a cab for hire — should be given only to those who are using it. Prop. K prevents consolidation of ownership in the industry, prevents speculators from turning medallions into a new form of securities (which worked out so well with mortgages), and gives people who have spent 10 years or more driving a cab a chance to reap the full benefits of their work.

Newsom, however, sees those permits as a gold mine. If the city auctioned them off, they might bring $100,000 apiece. Under Newsom’s plan, much of that money would go to the city, although some would go to current medallion holders.

The plan is full of problems.

For one, it could completely change the cab business in San Francisco, shifting control of the industry away from drivers and giving it to big businesses and investors. Very few working drivers (who are lucky to clear $30,000 a year) could afford to buy permits, particularly at auction. So the first people in the market would be the cab companies, which for years have wanted the right to own and control the medallions. Private investors — wealthy individuals and institutions — would see the permits as an asset likely to appreciate, and would buy up medallions, then seek to raise the lease fees for drivers. The only way drivers could buy permits would be to seek the equivalent of mortgage loans — but the banks that handle that sort of loans typically require 20 percent down, putting many drivers out of the running. Unless, that is, some shadowy characters come along with cash loans — or unless the cab companies handle that payment, thereby getting further control).

Unless medallion ownership is limited to drivers, the entire process will get corrupted. People will drive for a minimal period of time, bid on medallions, then go into another line of work — and keep the medallion. Newsom’s office says he’s going to do that, but there are no details on the plan yet.

Cab drivers in the city talk about the need for security and retirement income. After years of driving with a medallion, they want the right to sell it for a chunk of cash. But under the current system, drivers are — and most of them like being — independent contractors.

Freelance writers, consultants, small business owners, and many others who are self-employed are responsible for their own retirement planning. Why should cab drivers get a special deal from the city?

Privatizing the permits is just a bad idea. Newsom promised last year — in writing — that he wouldn’t seek to change Prop. K. It’s infuriating to see him so quickly break that promise.

The supervisors should reject this proposal.