Budget Fight Was About Politics – Not Policy

by Paul Hogarth on July 2, 2007

When Chris Daly tried to take $37 million out of the Mayor’s Budget, Gavin Newsom reacted as if Daly had attacked his manhood. He brought his entire re-election campaign to the steps of City Hall, accusing the District 6 Supervisor of cutting vital services. Under intense pressure, Daly withdrew his motion and Board President Aaron Peskin removed him from the Budget Committee. Peskin then announced that he would run a “drama-free” budget process.

On June 28th, the Budget Committee made $22 million in cuts to the Mayor’s Budget plus $13 million in other adjustments, including more cuts to the Police Department than Daly had originally proposed. The Committee restored most (but not all) of the Mayor’s public health cuts and added $10 million for affordable housing. But rather than complain, Newsom sent out a press release gloating that the Budget Committee had approved 99.25% of the Mayor’s Budget. Newsom’s outrage was not about policy differences within the budget – but rather about scoring political points against Chris Daly.

“The Budget Committee approved 99.25% of the budget I proposed on June 1st,” said Newsom in a June 29th press release. “Board President Aaron Peskin and the Committee deserve credit for supporting our shared priorities: paving our streets, strengthening public safety, improving Muni service and combating homelessness.”

Agreeing with 99.25% sounds like a consensus, until you consider that the total budget is six billion dollars. It also means that the Budget Committee did not support 0.75% of the Mayor’s Budget, which adds up to about $35 million – or slightly less than how much Daly’s plan had proposed cutting. While some of the Committee’s changes involved adjustments that don’t require cutting programs, the Board still cut $22 million out of the general fund – directly affecting many of Newsom’s priorities.

In his press release, the Mayor lauded the Supervisors for “investing” $500,000 in Community Courts, which Newsom cited as one of his “signature initiatives.” But as Randy Shaw wrote today, the Committee cut the program by $250,000 and said the money can’t be spent until there’s an actual plan. The Committee also restored $189,000 in cuts to the Behavioral Health Court – a successful program that connects mentally ill criminal defendants with case management – calling into question the need to even have Community Courts.

Chris Daly caught a lot of grief for proposing to eliminate a class at the Police Academy, a $3 million cut out of the Police Department’s budget. But the Committee cut the police budget by an even greater amount – $4.27 million – while Newsom applauded them for approving his “public safety priorities.” The Committee also cut the Mayor’s Telecommunication budget by $1.7 million, whereas Daly’s proposal to cut funding for the Mayor’s website and security cameras only totaled $1.1 million.

When comparing the cuts that Daly proposed with what the Budget Committee ended up cutting, only one huge difference really jumps out – the Public Works budget. Daly’s proposal cut $16.8 million out of street resurfacing, pothole repairs and sidewalk improvements, which is why the progressive Bicycle Coalition couldn’t support Daly’s amendments. The Budget Committee barely touched the Public Works budget, allowing Newsom to laud the Supervisors for meeting the city’s repaving needs.

Of course, there’s a political difference that transcends the actual budget numbers or policy implications. Chris Daly proposed his amendment unilaterally, as Chair of the Budget Committee, and on the heels of his Progressive Convention. Because Newsom really wanted Daly to run against him, it was easy to mobilize his re-election campaign to demonize one Supervisor. But it’s a different story when it comes from the whole Budget Committee after Aaron Peskin removed Daly and promised a “drama-free” process.

The Budget Committee also restored $10 million of the $33 million affordable housing supplemental that a super-majority of the Board had approved but Newsom refused to spend. While many progressives will view this as small comfort after the Mayor blatantly violated our system of checks and balances, consider that even in the best scenario the City was not going to spend the entire $33 million in just one year. We now have some money to spend this year on affordable family housing, and can still allocate more money in the following years.

Finally, the Committee restored most – but not all – of the $7.4 million in the Mayor’s public health cuts, including $200,000 for the Stimulant Treatment Outpatient Program that treats low-income cocaine addicts and $100,000 in intensive case management for violently injured youth and young adults. But the Committee did not restore $1 million for Buster’s Place on 13th Street – which means that San Francisco has lost its only 24-hour drop-in center for the homeless – nor did it restore the $133,000 cuts in emergency psychiatric services at SF General Hospital or the $669,000 for chronic care public health nurses.

In his controversial speech on June 19th where he mentioned the Mayor’s alleged cocaine use, Chris Daly bemoaned how these Health Department cuts are always put at the very end of the budget process. “It is backwards how we do our budget in San Francisco,” said Daly. “The needs of our least fortunate should be put first in the process.” Instead, non-profit service providers who help indigent clients are left at the back of the process fighting for crumbs in the budget. And this year, some like Buster’s Place and psychiatric treatment simply fell through the cracks.

The June 28th Budget Committee meeting had a surreal quality, as the five Supervisors furiously multi-tasked as they reviewed and scrutinized multiple City Department budgets at the same time. So many decisions were being made in the span of a few hours that it was difficult for the Supervisors – let alone the public – to keep track of what was being cut or restored. Like a lot of other people, I was stuck the next day trying to figure out exactly what changes the Committee had made.

But despite frustrations with the process, the Mayor’s media campaign and a few difficult cuts, it looks like progressives came out in decent shape this budget season. “I am fine with taking hits from the press and from misinformed members of the public,” said Daly at his June 19th speech. “Because each and every year I stand to deliver for the basic social services, the basic human services and the basic health services that the neediest San Franciscans rely upon year-in and year-out.”

And while there’s no question that Daly suffered more hits during this budget season, the final product was really not too different from what he had initially proposed. Only this time Mayor Newsom did not attack the Board of Supervisors for changing his budget. With Chris Daly off the Budget Committee, it was harder for Gavin Newsom to politicize the process.

Send feedback to paul@beyondchron.org

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