The slippery slope of San Diego politics got a little slicker this week, and when the dust settled around City Hall, both the proposed sales tax increase and the schools’ parcel tax were burning hulks, sitting on the side of the Sanders’ feel-good expressway. The battle arena over increasing revenues for local city services and/or public education has now shifted from the voters in November to the back rooms of Sacramento, where, rumor has it, a pending deal between Republican and Democratic legislators will delay upcoming corporate tax breaks granted in past years’ budget negotiations and allow the legislature to ease the budget cut backs for next year that are threatening local finances.
The key player in all the machinations over local taxation was San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders, who shepherded a succession of meetings between various politicos seeking a path towards ballot box victories in a toxic political atmosphere emanating from Tea Party activists and a public hit hard by the recession.
It was San Diego’s Mayor that originally hosted off-the-record discussions earlier this summer incorporating both labor and business interest groups that explored support for a ½ per cent increase in the local sales tax. He publicly abandoned the effort after word of these negotiations leaked out and galvanized grass roots activists committed to opposing any tax increase. Despite his public stance, the Mayor continued to send mixed signals, quietly negotiating (unsuccessfully, on the first try) with advocates of a local parcel tax to keep the measure off the November ballot because the potential for two tax increase measures could doom both efforts.
San Diego City Council President Ben Hueso picked up the heavy lifting chores by reviving the discussion of a sales tax increase; a discussion fueled by public anger over the death of a two year whose choking death was attributed by some as resulting from “brownouts” in fire department coverage. For a while, it appeared as though it was possible for the City Council to get the supermajority needed to place a sales tax increase on the fall ballot.
The Mayor summoned School Board President Richard Barrera and SDUSD Superintendent Bill Kowba to meetings with Hueso and Councilmember Todd Gloria this past weekend in a renewed effort to support the sales tax measure. Sanders’ argument was that the sales tax initiative faced a lower voter threshold (50%, plus one) than the parcel tax, which needed two-thirds voter approval. The assumption was at that point in time that the sales tax measure could muster up the needed votes on the City Council.
Meanwhile, behind the scenes, things weren’t looking so good for the parcel tax proposal. Since introducing the measure via a School Board resolution two weeks ago, Barrera had been spending much of his time attempting to put together a coalition of groups to support the initiative. His efforts, apparently, were not yielding the kind of financial support hoped for. The teachers union, while publicly backing the measure, was reportedly lukewarm in its support, and a projected big name backer opted to sit out for this election. The School Board President, who has actively campaigned for such a tax measure in the face of ever-increasing budget cuts from the State, began to feel that he was fighting a losing battle.
After consulting with State Sen. Denise Ducheny and Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher about possible compromises in the State’s budgetary situation that might lead to a reprieve for education funding, the School Board President decided to withdraw the Parcel tax measure (a move that still has to be voted on by the entire Board). He was quoted in a Voice of San Diego article as saying, “It’s asking people to put time and effort into something when they’d be better off doing something else.”
I was quoted in the Voice of San Diego, which described me as a parent-activist, a saying that I felt a little used by the process. I simply don’t know what to say to my daughter, whose magnet school program will likely be on the chopping block next year. (None-the-less, I do have respect for his political instincts. I hope he’s right about the situation in Sacramento improving. My instincts say that public schools are in even bigger trouble.)
In the meantime, the city sales tax increase failed to garner the necessary votes to put the measure on the November ballot when Councilwoman Donna Fry joined with Republican members in voting no. Opponents to the tax staged a rally outside City Hall, complete with restaurant owners pleading their cases that an increase was a business killer. Local anti tax advocates rallied the troops, with one local right wing blogger dubbing the situation, “Greedy public employee unions are threatening San Diego with dead babies in order to push a tax grab.”
In all the intense lobbying surrounding the measure, tax advocates had assumed that Fry would vote in favor. Her vote stunned local observers and the City Council, which for few moments, threatened to actually have a public discussion about the underlying issues that have previously been limited to back room debate. Had Council President Hueso and other supporters bothered to actually talk to Fry, they would have realized that her stance was entirely predictable. The Councilwomen, whose term ends in November, is still steaming from misrepresentations (calling her pro-tax) the Sanders campaign team made about her position on taxes (no increases without pension reform) during her earlier run for Mayor.
Jerry Sanders may not have been publicly supporting this effort—all City employees testifying before the Council took a neutral stance—but Fry wasn’t buying it. She got her revenge and emerged from the process appearing to be the most principled politician in town.
Meanwhile, back in Sacramento, Governor Schwarzenegger is threatening to simply refuse to sign any budget proposal passed by the legislature that fails to incorporate his plans for pension reform. The chances of getting 2/3 of our state reps to agree to such proposals are slim and none.
San Diego City Councilwoman Donna Frye formally requested a special meeting of the City Council today on a ballot measure that would include a package of reforms and a tax increase. Sources in Council President Ben Hueso’s office say the deal is dead for this year. Can Jerry Sanders pull this one out of the fire?