Small biz should support Chiu tax plan

Pub date July 20, 2010

EDITORIAL It’s rare to see a fairly conservative city agency, created in part to make it harder for progressives to push measures that might affect business, come down in favor of a new business tax. But the San Francisco Office of Economic Analysis has concluded that the proposal by Board of Supervisors President David Chiu to change the local payroll tax and impose a new tax on commercial rents would actually help local businesses, particularly small businesses. The proposal presents a crucial opportunity for progressives to make the case that the Chamber of Commerce and big downtown corporations are not advancing the interests of small businesses — and local merchant groups need to pay attention.

Chiu has taken on a problem that has lingered in San Francisco for decades. The city’s business tax is terribly regressive: Only 10 percent of the companies in town even pay the payroll tax, in part because banks, insurance companies, and financial services firms are exempt under state law. That means the burden falls the heaviest on small and medium-sized companies — the ones that provide most of the net job growth in the city.

The new proposal would make the flat payroll tax more progressive and would exempt more small businesses. It would also raise $28 million more a year for the cash-strapped municipal coffers by taxing commercial rents of more than $60,000 a year.

The commercial rent levy would force the big outfits that now pay no city taxes whatsoever to take on at least some of the burden of financing San Francisco government. Smaller companies with modest leases, and small commercial landlords, wouldn’t pay the new tax at all.

Chiu originally had proposed an even broader tax, which would have raised more than $35 million. But after the Small Business Commission expressed concerns, he changed the measure, reducing the burden on small business even further. And at this point, Ted Egan, the city’s chief economist at the Office of Economic Analysis, reports that the tax would lead to greater job creation in the private sector (because of the reduction in the payroll tax) as well as greater job creation in the public sector (because of the additional revenue to the city).

It’s the kind of idea that ought to have broad-based support — progressives looking to fund crucial services see it as a way to bring in money, and small businesses ought to see it as a way to cut taxes and create jobs in the sector of the city that most needs economic stimulus.

Unfortunately, the response from small business leaders hasn’t been encouraging. The commission hasn’t taken a stand on the measure; on July 12th, the panel deadlocked 2-2, with one member absent and two slots still vacant (the mayor hasn’t filled them). That lets the big downtown players — the Chamber, the Building Owners and Managers Association, the Committee on JOBS, etc. — in a position to claim that the Chiu proposal is anti-business.

We’ve seen this pattern far to often. Small business groups allow big corporations, which have no interest in the real issues that impact local merchants, stick the little folks out front on political issues. We’ve seen it over the years with public power, commercial rent control, downtown development, and taxes — and it needs to stop.

The Small Business Commission, the Council of District Merchants, all the local community merchant groups, and anyone else who really cares about the interests of small business in San Francisco should support the Chiu measure. It’s a tax plan that’s good for small business. And if the advocates don’t realize that, they’re hurting themselves, the customers, and the city.