No balance in two-year budget

Pub date April 14, 2009
WriterChris Daly
SectionNews & OpinionSectionOpinion

OPINION There’s no more important decision made by the Board of Supervisors than that of the city’s annual budget. Every year the board sets the city’s priorities by appropriating more than $6 billion. In good economic times, the board uses the budget process to set new policy directions for San Francisco. In bad times, the annual budget is the board’s only real chance to save vital services by making targeted appropriations while strategically reducing other parts of the budget.

That’s why a charter amendment to have only biannual budgeting is a bad idea.

The fact that a two-year budget is being pushed by the Newsom administration and the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce should give progressives pause. Unfortunately, downtown forces have successfully used the worst budget year ever to woo some progressive budget stakeholders.

Their argument sounds good on its face. A multiyear budget would help smooth out the highs and lows, requiring City Hall to deal with pending fiscal emergencies sooner. It would also mean every other year off from having to spend all that energy turning people out to endless budget meetings and lobbying to save the programs we care about.

But the way a two-year budget would actually play out would mean that progressive budget stakeholders would have only half the opportunities for budget input through the generally more responsive Board of Supervisors. Meanwhile, the Mayor’s Office would be able to centralize more power without having to get annual approvals from the board. In other words, a two-year budget would make the Office of Mayor even more insulated from the public and members of the board on the decisions that affect us the most.

Additionally, two-year budgets would be unwieldy and inaccurate. Over the past nine years of out-year projections by the Controller’s Office, the average difference between the projected and actual surplus or deficit was nearly $250 million. For example, last year the controller estimated our 2009-10 budget deficit would be about $46 million. This year it’s pegged at $438 million. Of course, as our real revenue data comes in, this number will surely change again. Unfortunately, we won’t know how much revenue we received for this upcoming budget year until we are a month or two into the following fiscal year.

There are serious flaws with our annual budget process. In difficult years, the mayor has too much unchecked power to make mid-year budget changes. Earlier this year, Mayor Gavin Newsom enacted a $118 million budget package that included tens of millions in health and human service cuts and more than 400 layoffs without approval of the Board of Supervisors. Meanwhile, when a majority of board members voted to cut pork from the mayor’s budget, he was able to avert that cut with his veto pen.

Leaving the decision about millions of dollars’ worth of service cuts in the middle of the year turns the democratic budget process — with checks and balances between the mayor and board — on its head. Correcting this problem with the current budget process would surely be a worthwhile effort.

Meanwhile, we must stay focused on this year’s budget process to preserve as many of the vital services as we can. *

Sup. Chris Daly represents District 6. Ed Kinchley is a labor activist.