San Francisco Budget to Pass Board Today

by Paul Hogarth on July 14, 2009

UPDATE: The Board of Supervisors continued a vote on the budget, and will do so next week.

Today, the Board of Supervisors will vote on the final budget – and consider a Charter Amendment that would give such appropriations teeth. It also happens to be the 14th of July – the French National Holiday that Americans call “Bastille Day,” which is an apt coincidence. Consider the following: Mayor Gavin Newsom proposed a “let them eat cake” budget this year that slashed health and human services, but progressive Supervisors demanded some égalité in the cuts. Talk of downsizing the Police and Fire Departments then provoked an angry contingent of firefighters to storm the Board Chambers, who – unlike the sans culottes of 1789 – did not prevail in their direct action. The Budget Committee then spent weeks examining Newsom’s proposal, but it didn’t take long before the progressive Jacobins at City Hall split. After talks with the Mayor’s Office, Board President David Chiu and Budget Chair John Avalos produced a negotiated budget many felt was lacking – prompting Chris Daly to pull a Robespierre on his former aide. As the budget reaches its finale today, here is what to look for in this afternoon’s meeting …

Will the Board Listen to Jeff Adachi?

When Newsom released his budget proposal on June 1st, he said: “if you’re Jeff Adachi, you’re angry about the layoffs. If you’re my office, you’re angry that you’ve reduced your own office by 28%.” The latter was a blatant lie, but the former was spot-on. The Mayor cut $1.9 million from the Public Defender’s Office, prompting a slew of angry responses.

Jeff Adachi has set the standard throughout this process on how City department heads should defend their budgets, and the Budget Committee responded by restoring $600,000. He got a little help from the City Controller – whose analysis proved that farming out cases to private attorneys did not save any money. But during July 1st negotiations with the Mayor’s Office, Supervisors Chiu and Avalos agreed to take back $300,000 and – to add insult to injury – give it to the District Attorney.

Adachi has responded in an unorthodox manner. On Saturday, I received a mailing – paid for by Adachi’s leftover campaign funds – that urged San Franciscans to call their Supervisors before today’s meeting. It had the professional look of a campaign brochure, and was “not printed or mailed at government expense.” Unions often do this as part of a lobbying effort for their members, but this may be the first time a department head has mobilized the public for their own budget. It’s a bold move, but will it be successful?

Will the Mayor’s Pet Projects Be Put on Conditional Reserves?

The Budget Committee may have saved $43.7 million worth of cuts to crucial programs. But during these tough fiscal times, the City budget also has: (1) five press secretaries for the Mayor (which is totally unnecessary unless the Mayor is running for Governor), (2) a Greening Director (when the City already has an $11 million Department of the Environment), (3) a Director of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice (when most criminal justice grants have been taken out of the Mayor’s Office), (4) a Community Justice Center that refers people to other social programs threatened with cuts and (5) a 311 Call Center open 24 hours a day to take “non-emergency” calls.

Will the Supervisors go ahead and cut the Mayor’s Pet Projects? As much as that’s good public policy, Newsom could easily retaliate by using his line-item veto. But what will happen in a few short months after the bad economy – along with repercussions from the state budget crisis – force the City to make mid-year cuts? Will Newsom just target the programs he tried to cut in this cycle, or does the Board have a way to prioritize what gets cut first?

Ross Mirkarimi has a proposal to put the above projects on “conditional reserve.” This does not mean it would be a de-appropriation, but it would require the Mayor to get the Board’s permission to spend the money – when the City gets a drop in revenue. Some progressive Supervisors – including Budget Chair John Avalos – have expressed a reluctance to do so, but expect this to become a contentious issue at today’s meeting.

Will November Ballot Resolve Constitutional Crisis?

The San Francisco Charter gives the Mayor disproportionate power during the budget process. Although the Supervisors technically control the “purse-strings” of government, they have no power to mandate that money be spent. They can de-appropriate money to stop the Mayor from spending on programs, but nothing precludes Newsom from not spending money on their priorities. Even the President of the United States doesn’t have that power, and some – like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan – were sued when they defied a request by Congress to spend money on programs they didn’t agree with.

Today, the Board of Supervisors will consider a Charter Amendment that would give them the discretion to mandate spending for certain priorities. Six members must vote to put it on the November ballot, and Mayor Newsom has already vowed to make its defeat a priority. Chris Daly – the amendment’s sponsor – seems to delight in having the Mayor target its defeat. If we don’t have six votes today, the public will never get to weigh in.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Paul Hogarth is half-French, and retains dual citizenship.

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