Budget talks, without the mayor

Pub date February 17, 2009
SectionEditorialSectionNews & Opinion

EDITORIAL The president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, David Chiu, is doing something Mayor Gavin Newsom should have done a long time ago. He’s putting the key stakeholders in the budget debate — labor, small business, downtown, nonprofits, etc. — in the same room and talking about solutions.

And while none of the participants want to talk publicly, it’s clear that all sides think they are making progress. The most likely outcome ought to be a winner for everyone: a special election, delayed until July, when the public can vote on some revenue measures that would blunt the awful impact of a half-billion dollar budget deficit.

For this to work, everyone is going to have to give up something. The city employee unions will have to be willing to reopen contracts and accept either reductions in raises or some layoffs. Some political leaders’ pet projects and highly paid patronage employees will have to go. Downtown will have to accept some new taxes on the wealthy; small business will have to stomach a sales tax. And the supervisors will have to hold hearings on and negotiate a budget this summer before they know for sure that the money will be there to pay the bills.

We have actively pushed for a June election, to make sure the money is there when the budget is approved — but July is a perfectly acceptable compromise. In fact, it has a certain amount of political synergy. The mayor will present a bloody, brutal, budget in May that includes devastating cuts to essential programs. The supervisors can then offer the voters a clear choice: accept those cuts — or vote to approve a package of revenue measures on a special election ballot.

The effort will be a whole lot easier if the mayor stops being such an obstructionist — and if his allies on the board are willing to join with what could be an emerging consensus. Under state law, any new taxes San Francisco enacts this year would require a two-thirds vote of the people — a tough threshold. But if the supervisors and the mayor agree unanimously to declare a budget emergency (and a deficit that equals half the discretionary money in the general fund is by any standards an emergency), then a simple majority can approve a tax hike.

So far the mayor has been almost entirely missing in action here. Although his press secretary, Nathan Ballard, told us the mayor has been meeting with budget stakeholders, that’s news to many of the people in Chiu’s group. Even business leaders, who in the past have been loyal to the mayor, are now openly criticizing his absence from the discussions. It’s crazy — Newsom is running around the state, working on his campaign for governor, while the work of keeping his city from a total meltdown is going on without him. Newsom absolutely must engage here, and start attending Chiu’s meetings. He’s been insisting he won’t support a June election, allegedly because there’s no broad coalition calling for it. But that coalition may be coming together to talk about an election in July — and Newsom isn’t even paying attention.

Meanwhile, three of the supervisors — Sean Elsbernd, Michela Alioto-Pier, and Carmen Chu — have also opposed a special election, and they’re going to have to change their tune. Even Republicans in the state Legislature — who signed a pledge never to support any tax increases — worked with the governor on a budget plan that includes some significant tax hikes. The Democratic moderates on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors shouldn’t be able to get away with refusing to look for new sources of revenue — soon, as part of the next year’s budget — to keep the city from fiscal calamity.