Supes Bring Muni Back From the Dead

by Paul Hogarth on May 14, 2009

Will Maxwell Stick With the Six?

Thanks to yesterday’s Budget Committee, the Board of Supervisors will get a second bite at the apple on Muni. David Chiu may have cut a deal with the Mayor’s Office on the MTA budget, but the Full Board never actually voted to accept it. All they did at the May 12th meeting – by a 6-5 vote – was to “table” Chiu’s motion to reject the MTA budget, but the City Charter still gives them until May 31st to act. Moreover, last week’s Budget Committee members “duplicated” the file – so that (a) a motion to reject the Muni budget went to the full Board, but (b) the motion would stay in Committee for an extra week to see if a deal can be struck. And at yesterday’s Committee meeting, Supervisors John Avalos, Ross Mirkarimi and David Campos voted again to reject the budget (with Bevan Dufty and Carmen Chu dissenting), as they attempt to save Muni from the dead. Tuesday’s deal was cut behind closed doors, with political extortion by Mayor Gavin Newsom, and with Chiu badly outnumbered and in a weak bargaining position. Now the Supervisors have another chance to craft a Muni budget, and whether Sophie Maxwell stays firm with the six progressives will be key.

The Muni budget agreement that was struck on Tuesday may have taken $10 million out of the MTA proposal and put another $10 million in, but it was nibbling at the edges of a thoroughly unfair budget. It added $8 million back into needed service enhancement, but cut $13 million in bus lines – leaving public transit that costs more to provide less. And it only cut $3 million from the infamous work orders, where the MTA’s expected to solve the budget woes of other City agencies.

Such a deal happened because we have a Mayor who prefers political extortion tactics over the regular “give-and-take” process we expect from our different branches of government. Politics is the art of compromise – if we assume the framework of that compromise is a level playing field. But Gavin Newsom doesn’t respect the Board of Supervisors, like when he wouldn’t spend affordable housing money the Board appropriated – or insisted on mid-year budget cuts without consulting the Supervisors. When the Board wanted to exercise its only right under the MTA Charter to reject the Muni budget, Newsom reacted as if they attacked his manhood.

Here is why such harsh words are warranted. The MTA Board – who are all appointed by the Mayor – passed a flawed budget, and the only power the Supervisors have is if seven of them stick together to overrule it. I had always assumed that if this happened, the MTA would be obligated to re-submit a new budget – but it turns out that’s not the case. If (and only if) the MTA does nothing in response, the General Fund gets stuck with an extra $30 million in its deficit. Rather than avert such a disaster, Newsom would rather blame the Supervisors for this happening.

Board of Supervisors President David Chiu attempted to propose a deal with MTA chief Nat Ford last week at the Budget Committee, in order to avoid a showdown with the Mayor. But then he heard nothing – until the eve of the May 12th Board meeting. By then, Bevan Dufty – who had voted for rejection in Committee – flipped, and Sophie Maxwell – who was one of the seven co-sponsors of Chiu’s motion to reject the budget – was wavering. If Chiu could have gone into negotiations knowing there were seven solid votes to reject the Muni budget, he would have had the upper hand. But the Mayor’s people probably assumed Maxwell would support any “deal” that came out, no matter how unfair or imbalanced.

Another problem with the agreement was that it happened behind closed doors – with the press, the public and even most members of the Board of Supervisors unaware of what exactly was going on. Terms of negotiation should have happened in the open, so that decisions could be fully vetted in a more transparent process. Instead, Chiu walked into a room with pro-Newsom Supervisor Carmen Chu (who was even dispatched on behalf of the Mayor), MTA executive Nat Ford, and the Mayor’s Chief of Staff. Rule #1 in any negotiation is you never walk in outnumbered and outgunned. Chiu should have brought John Avalos (who is chair of the Budget Committee), or another progressive Supervisor to assure a more even playing field.

Yesterday’s Budget Committee vote, however, allows the Supervisors to take another shot at crafting a better agreement. While Bevan Dufty and Carmen Chu said there had already been a deal to avoid $30 million in cuts to the General Fund, David Campos reminded them there would have been no deal without the specter of a rejected MTA budget. The three progressives on that committee (Campos, Avalos and Ross Mirkarimi) admirably stuck to their guns, saying that the Muni budget deal was unacceptable – and we can do better. By a 3-2 vote, the Budget Committee assured that the Supervisors have another week to weigh in on a public transit agreement.

How do we ensure a better crafted agreement? First, Supervisor Sophie Maxwell must be willing to support rejecting the Muni budget – and to not let the Mayor’s threats scare her out of standing firm. The Board’s leverage to change Muni budget is totally meaningless, unless the Newsom Administration knows that there are seven solid votes to reject it. While Maxwell was initially the seventh vote to reject the budget, her ambivalence on May 12th made a sensible and fair compromise difficult.

Besides bringing Maxwell back in the fold, one Supervisor needs to be told the deal was unacceptable and we can do better: David Chiu. Right now, bus riders are angry about the agreement, and we’re counting on Chiu to let the Mayor’s Office know that “moving on” is not in the cards. Chiu would be making a big mistake by leaving his progressive base out in the cold, but he can show real leadership by pushing to re-open negotiations. Already, Chiu was quoted yesterday making disturbing comments about the Budget Committee vote — it’s time to push him to re-open negotiations.

At the Budget Committee, Bevan Dufty said he had confidence in Muni chief Nat Ford – who the MTA Board had given discretion to unilaterally modify 5% of the total budget, or $40 million. But the negotiated agreement that was hashed out on Tuesday only changes $10 million – with fare hikes, service cuts and many of the work orders still on the table. Altering another $30 million could make a real difference in preserving our public transit system. It’s clear the deal does far less than it should … now we have hope to get it right.

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