Read Our Lips: No New Taxes

by Lorraine Sanders on November 11, 2004

Every time I head East, I run across at least one person ready to crack on the Bay Area’s liberal politics. I’m heading to Virginia for Thanksgiving, and I’m already bracing myself for the ridicule. But thanks to last week’s election, I may be able to win some temporary favor from even my most conservative relatives. The rest of the country loves to call us lefty liberal commies, but our local election returns sure don’t support that notion. Despite crippled city budgets and the ever-increasing need for social services, San Francisco and East Bay residents voted like a bunch of fiscal conservatives.

In San Francisco, Props J, K and O bombed like a bad Ben Affleck movie (and with the exception of “Mall Rats” and “Goodwill Hunting,” they’re all pretty much crap). But for a few notable successes, the tax hikes peppering Contra Costa and Alameda county ballots also tanked. What gives? Why did a population routinely castigated for its liberalism suddenly embrace economic strategies usually favored by traditional Republicans (i.e. not the George-I-spend-like-Elton-John-and-Mariah-Carey-on-a-speed-addled-shopping-spree-Bush kind of Republican)?

It’s not that Bay Area voters aren’t aware of their counties’ economic needs. We’ve got eyes. We know our social services, schools and public transportation systems need serious cash infusions. The problem is, most of us don’t have any money. And those who do feel like they’re already giving it up faster than drunk chicks at a frat party.

To say Bay Area living costs a pretty penny is like saying John Kerry has an unusually long face. We know. It’s so obvious we sometimes forget how shocking it really is. Except, of course, when we’re standing at the voting booth. Then we remember. Jesus Christ, it’s already so expensive here that only one in 10 of us can afford a home, and now they want to tax my phone, my property, my utilities, my business and everything I buy? Wait, they already tax that stuff. Now they want more?!!? Holy hell. What’s next? Taxing our will to live?

It’s like Bay Area Economic Forum President Sean Randolph told the Contra Costa County Times last week: “The Bay Area has a very wealthy population, but also some of the highest taxes and the highest cost of living in the country. We have so many taxes here already that people can be reluctant to accede to proposals to increase taxes.”

According to Randolph, Bay Area voters will raise taxes if they see a compelling reason behind the measure and trust local government to spend the money wisely. In Berkeley, 72 percent of voters approved higher property taxes to reduce public school classroom sizes and keep school libraries open.

And in Contra Costa County, 71 percent of voters gave the green light to a sales tax slated for highway improvements, including expansion of the Caldecott Tunnel.

Contra Costa County voters also approved a 5-year parcel tax to improve schools in the Livermore Valley Joint Unified School District. Richmond residents said yes to an increased sales tax to combat their city’s budget deficit, and extensions to existing utility taxes found support in Pinole, San Pablo and El Cerrito.

Notably, these initiatives tell voters exactly what their money is going to pay for. Even the less specific initiatives like Richmond’s sales tax ballot measure, which raises funds for general government use, lists the government services that the money will support.

In contrast, many of the ballot measures that failed had much more vacuous proposals for spending the new funds. Take San Francisco Props J, K and O, for example. Smartvoter.org’s summary of Prop J describes the proposed .25 percent sales tax increase, saying, “The City would control the additional tax funds and could spend them for any public purpose.” Ditto for Prop K.

In San Ramon, voters rejected Measure U, which would have raised Transient Occupancy Taxes for “economic development purposes.” And Fremont voters decided against a new utility tax that would have preserved “the safety and character” of their city.

Plenty of organizations speculated about where the funds from these initiatives would go, and many saw these propositions as the only way to secure funding for much-needed public and social services. And they were right to see it that way. But no one really knew exactly where their money would go once city governments got hold of it. Apparently, broad plans for battling budget shortfalls and funding much-needed services were not convincing enough reasons for Bay Area voters to dip into their pockets.

Consequently, San Francisco and East Bay cities are going to see some changes in the coming months. As San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom announced last week, there will be layoffs galore in San Francisco city departments and cuts to god knows how many necessary services. Non-profits will also suffer greatly.

In the short term, voters will benefit, except, of course, those voters who need the jobs and services many of the failed ballot measures would have funded. And there is one more positive side effect that comes from all this. I’ll have some tricks up my sleeve at Thanksgiving. That said, I’d rather be concocting defenses about our radical spending on public services.

You can reach the author at lorraine@lorrainesanders.com.


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