Revenue for all

Pub date April 6, 2010

OPINION Cut, cut, cut, cut, cut: this is the sound of your government — parks, schools, playgrounds, hospitals, clinics, public transportation, programs for youth and seniors, arts, social services, the whole fabric that makes San Francisco what it is — fading away as state and local politicians refuse to raise revenue to revitalize our economy.

Mayor Gavin Newsom and big business groups have promoted a defeatist politics of low expectations, cutting spending, laying off city workers by the thousands, and offering tax breaks to businesses and developers rather than tapping San Francisco’s deep pockets of wealth to generate economic opportunities citywide.

It’s time for a new path: a fiscal politics of optimism, opportunity, and addition rather than subtraction. It’s time for an unapologetic progressive taxation movement for this November’s ballot and beyond, to make the city’s great wealth — individual and corporate, often badly undertaxed — work for all San Franciscans.

As California crumbles, local revenue movements could fuel a statewide campaign of towns, cities, and counties to overturn Proposition 13. San Francisco can take the lead with progressive taxation to create jobs, promote small neighborhood businesses, expand affordable housing and public transit, save public health, and more.

A citywide campaign for progressive taxes is building, including leaders from community-based nonprofits, grassroots organizing and neighborhood groups, labor unions, and some corners of City Hall. There are many promising ideas; with the right political will and organizing, the city could, for instance, tax large-scale real estate and levy profits from large firms. Progressive taxes could, at minimum, bring in close to $100 million and help save critical city services.

To win this campaign, a strong coalition must educate and mobilize the public about the vital importance — and citywide benefit — of raising revenue through targeted taxes on large firms and wealthy individuals. The city’s political leaders will need prodding, pressure, and support to get this done.

Progressive taxation will benefit all of San Francisco, not just some — working-class people of color and immigrants who endure the cuts’ harshest effects, everyone from youths to seniors, and vitally needed city employees like social workers, nurses, librarians, park workers, and firefighters.

The politics of austerity poses false choices between public safety and public health — as if health isn’t a safety issue. San Franciscans of all stripes must reject the pitting of services and "constituencies" against each other, reject the wedge politics that pit labor against nonprofits (both of which work to uplift working-class and poor residents), and unify around progressive revenue.

Nobody likes taxes, least of all the middle class, working class, and poor (the vast majority of us) who shoulder the bulk of the burden. But wealthy individuals and corporations can and must pay their fair share. According to a 2007 World Wealth Report produced by Merrill Lynch, 123,621 households in the Bay Area — many of them in San Francisco — "had $1 million or more in financial assets in 2007, up 10.8 percent from the year before," the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

At a Feb. 14, 2007 Town Hall on Poverty in Bayview-Hunters Point, Newsom asserted, "we haven’t addressed the wealth divide; we haven’t addressed the health divide; we haven’t addressed the economic divide … why in a city like San Francisco has income inequality grown like it has?"

Yet Newsom and others continue to avoid progressive taxation — despite polls suggesting such measures can win. Tell Mayor Newsom, and your district supervisor, to make San Francisco’s wealth work for everyone. Now. *

Christopher Cook, an award-winning journalist and former Bay Guardian city editor, is communications director for the Revenue for All campaign of Budget Justice, a coalition of members from dozens of community organizations, labor unions and their allies working to raise revenue and protect the most vulnerable San Franciscans from budget cuts.