Proposition D proposes to raise sales taxes in San Diego by ½ of one cent, provided that the city government makes good on promises of fiscal reform. Everybody on both sides of this issue agrees that the city government is facing a shortage of funds. And that’s about the only thing they agree on.
A coalition of moderately conservative politicians/business groups and more liberal elements of the city council/union groups are supporting this proposal. The tango that lead up to this alliance between Mayor Jerry Saunders and long-time foe City Councilwoman Donna Frye was especially bittersweet, given that Frye was branded as pro-tax by Saunders in their neck and neck race for the Mayoralty just a few years ago. Now they’re working together, hoping to moderate the impact on public services that a projected $72 million city budget deficit could bring next year. The combination of the new taxes and cost cutting measures will temporarily stabilize the city’s fiscal woes, putting off the day of reckoning, presumably until somebody else is in office.
The mantra of Proposition D supporters is that we need to trust that they’ll put the reforms in place to (temporarily) stabilize the City’s revenue. It became a whole lot harder to trust these characters in the wake of a backroom deal tied to the State’s budget bill. In the dead of night Mayor Sanders and his developer friends– without the knowledge of either the San Diego City Council or the San Diego City Attorney—inserted language that lifted the cap on funding for the Centre City Redevelopment Project. What this mean, in practical terms, is that the City now has a huge fund that can be used to, among other things, build the San Diego Chargers a new stadium. The secrecy of the deal has poisoned the atmosphere surrounding the status quo coalition. For more on this, visit Pat Flannery’s Blog of San Diego here. It’s a great read.
The opposition to Proposition D is fronted by City Councilman Carl DeMaio, an adamant and sometimes abrasive critic of just about everything having to do with contemporary governance. DeMaio hails from the Grover Norquist school of politics. The campaign against Proposition D is about much more than a simple tax increase for him and his allies. This struggle represents an organizing opportunity for DeMaio, just one step in a process whose objective is nothing less than political dominance of the libertarian right nationally.
By opposing this initiative at the polls, the Councilman hopes to further build an alliance that will gain political control locally, regionally and nationally by weakening the core pillars of the democratic base: labor unions, “big city political machines” dominated by municipal unions, and “taxpayer-funded lobbies” (social service agencies, Legal Aid Societies, and other do-gooders). His next act after this campaign will be to resurrect last year’s failed “Competition and Transparency in City Contracting Initiative”, a cleverly titled ballot measure that was little more than a thinly viewed attack on local labor unions. For my take on their very shady signature collecting process go here.
The No on D campaign has taken on a decidedly Tea Party flavor, with their recent elevation of “Manny the Printer” to heroic status as an example of a Hillcrest-based small businessman fighting valiantly against the evil powers at City Hall. “Manny” reminds one another Tea Party hero: “Joe The Plumber”. Especially after one reads his blog, wherein President Obama is called a “dictator” and liberalism is called a “disease”.
At the core of the City’s financial difficulties are billions of dollars owed to pensioners who once worked for or currently work for San Diego. The annual payouts are expected to reach $500 million by 2025. It’s easy to play the blame game here and there is plenty of blame to go around. The City got the 1996 GOP Convention and a new Padres ballpark; the employees got a pension system based on economic projections that even a ponzi scheme artist wouldn’t promise. Don Bauder over at the Reader recently published an analysis of just how dire the situation is that sums it up nicely:
With property, sales, and hotel taxes likely to be weak for a long period, there is no way the City can pay these sums, although it will continue to raise fees, slash services, sell assets, cook the books, and perhaps raise sales taxes. Meanwhile, safety workers are retiring at age 50 and 55, some with six-figure yearly pension payments, while other City retirees are getting more than $15,000 a month.
Can this picture get any worse?
Why yes, it can, and is already getting so. That’s because San Diego is a microcosm of the United States. Many other municipalities and states have similar problems, and these pension commitments are considered to be locked in stone legally. Only a bankruptcy court could break the contracts, and any such decision would probably go all the way to the United States Supreme Court. Ergo, this problem will be around quite a while, in San Diego and elsewhere. That will put pressure on the already-ailing federal government to bail out states and cities. San Diego is a woebegone jurisdiction, but it has too much company to count on federal help.
So, to re-state the obvious, the City of San Diego is screwed. And Carl DeMaio’s crew would love to exploit this situation by using people’s dislike of taxes and politicians to create an environment that would allow them to really get started on their road towards dismantling the city government. Their “plan” to “save” San Diego won’t be released until after the election, but chances are it won’t be significantly different that what the Yes on D forces are warning about should the initiative fail: cutbacks in virtually all services—libraries, lifeguards, and public safety.
The City government clearly doesn’t deserve to be bailed out with a regressive tax of their quandary by the taxpayers. On the other hand, are you really sure that it’s time to start down the road towards the libertarian paradise the DeMaio’s ilk are seeking? (For those of wondering about what this could be like, see this article about libertarian career opportunities.) The reliably conservative Union-Tribune has decided that having a vision for San Diego is a better option than infrastructure/services destruction in the name of ideological purity. The paper urged voters to say “Yes on D” in a editorial remarkable for the candor in which they explored their decision making process.
A “Yes on D” vote is a vote for the status quo. A vote against D is a vote for uncertainty with a side of Tea Party madness. As much as I disagree with Sanders and Company, the specter of the lunacy associated with the far right (and it is impossible to untangle the libertarian and religious threads that make up that movement), means I’ll hold my nose and vote “Yes” on D.