Dueling SF ballot measures for housing, childcare reveal a city more adept at politics than governing

Illustration by Rini Templeton

A tax measure boosting childcare can beat a tax measure aimed at providing housing and homeless services, even if the former garners far fewer votes. How does that make sense? And why are voters forced to choose one or the other?


Art Agnos was early. The former mayor had intended to merely endorse the reappointment of a city commissioner at a Wednesday Board of Supervisors committee meeting (She was reappointed — hours later).

Instead, he found himself sitting through a cavalcade of impassioned testimony from dueling supporters of forthcoming dueling ballot measures for homeless services and housing or childcare and early childhood education — which, incongruously and farcically, are slated to run against each other in June. San Francisco voters will be forced to make a Sophie’s Choice to benefit the unhoused and those who cannot afford housing or parents unable to afford childcare and the marginally paid childcare workers struggling to afford Bay Area life (or neither: The political conventional wisdom is that competing tax measures confuse and turn off voters, often dooming both of them).

Well, to hell with it. Agnos stood up and joined the cavalcade of speakers.

“My son and his wife and our first grandchild live with us because they can’t afford a place in the city. And they have his grandfather, who is 80, and his 73-year-old grandmother as childcare workers because they can’t afford childcare.” The former mayor paused. “We should not have to choose between the two. It creates ideological, tribal warfare in this city which does not belong here.”

The 80-year-old then prefaced his next sentence in a way many 80-year-olds do — except this 80-year-old is a former mayor, and he said out loud what many, many people in City Hall and outside of it are thinking: “In my day, we would go into a room with these two competing great ideas and take as much time we needed, and not come out until we’d resolved them.”

Left unsaid is that corralling politically ambitious legislators and leaning on them to craft a solution that works best for the city writ large is the duty of a responsible mayor — and that didn’t happen this year. Also left unsaid is that, while San Francisco is an entity that always looks out for itself, it has a spottier record in serving the people who actually live here. There is no good governmental reason why two ballot measures aiming to address two dire social problems should take aim at one revenue source and force the voters to — at most — fund one, like some twisted electoral version of Queen for a Day.

But there are political reasons.

It does not well serve our homeless or marginally housed populations or our financially strapped parents and childcare providers to pit them against one another in a winner-take-all contest (assuming voters don’t spurn both tax measures). But the politicians pushing these competing plans can win, even if the measures lose.

The early childhood education/childcare measure is helmed by Supervisor Norman Yee and Supervisor Jane Kim — a mayoral aspirant. The homeless/housing measure was sponsored by Supervisor Ahsha Safai, along with fellow supes Malia Cohen, Jeff Sheehy, Katy Tang, and then-Supervisor Mark Farrell. But, politically, it could also be a promotional vehicle for the woman Farrell replaced in the Mayor’s seat and who is hoping to replace him: Supervisor London Breed.

A candidate for higher office benefitting from a crowd-pleasing ballot measure either just prior to or during his or her run is a political tactic every bit as tried and true as getting a dog. But more lucrative: Unlike contributions to a mayoral candidate, which are capped at $500, well-wishers can shower unlimited funds on a ballot measure. The deepest of deep pockets can be tapped to put photos of one mayoral candidate or another on a flier imploring we help the sorts of folks that voters would like to help.

But that’s just the beginning. Unlike independent expenditure committees (IEs), a ballot measure campaign can, legally and overtly, cooperate and coordinate with candidates. And this can be quite granular: Shared polling could indicate that a given demographic is wild about elements of a ballot measure, and also inclined to vote for a particular mayoral candidate. And then, in a coordinated move, the ballot campaign could undertake get-out-the-vote activities aimed at these voters, while a candidate courts them as a leader on the issue polling reveals they support.

The messaging can be coordinated. Everything can be coordinated.

Kim has been up-front that childcare and early education will be a big issue in her mayoral campaign. And Breed, for what it’s worth, has steadily been addressing homeless issues.  

It’s a fool’s game to say Kim or Yee doesn’t care about affordable housing. It’s also a fool’s game to say Breed or Safai doesn’t care about childcare and early education. And yet here we are. Barring unforeseen lunacy, you’ll be forced to vote to enrich one worthy cause or the other — though it’s unlikely most voters will realize that there can be only one winner. City voters are generous. And while, yes, competing tax measures do tend to drive away voters, the revenue source here is a commercial gross receipts tax — which most citizens aren’t on the hook for (and may not even know what it is).

Polling has revealed that both measures are popular. But, if forced to choose, fewer voters prefer the childcare measure. And yet, through a quirk of law and a deft strategic move by Kim, fewer voters are needed for her measure to win.

Safai threw his measure into a (crowded) ring in mid-January, after discussions with the business interests who’ll be paying these taxes (and with whom Yee and Kim did not consult). He told me that the Committee on Jobs and the Building Owners and Managers Association would favor his measure aimed at homelessness and housing over the rival plan to fund education.

Well, perhaps. They probably also prefer the fact that Safai’s measure will tax them at 1.7 percent, while the Yee/Kim plan hits them at 3.5 percent. And yet, regardless of Downtown’s wishes, Kim’s measure now has a distinct advantage.

That’s because, following Safai’s move, Kim in January initiated a signature-gathering drive to submit a near-identical measure to the voters (Yee, a lifelong booster of public education, put $15,000 of his own money into this effort).

This sounds arcane, but it’s no trivial detail: A recent state Supreme Court ruling holds that tax measures placed on the ballot via voters’ signatures require only a bare majority to succeed. Those placed there by legislators require a two-thirds vote. As such, Kim’s proposal could garner 51 percent of the vote and still beat Safai’s measure if it receives 65 percent of the vote.

Her move to go the signature-gathering route was a savvy one. And it also required more than $100,000 in quick fund-raising — a heavy investment rendering her even less likely to compromise with forces she believes have tried (and failed) to politically kneecap her.

“I want to thank Ahsha,” Kim told me following Wednesday’s contentious meeting. “Because he pushed us to do this.”

Oof. The odds of our leaders locking themselves in a room and working out a compromise would appear to be minuscule. The odds of animosity leading up to June’s election are high. By then, maybe we’ll all want to lock ourselves in a room.   

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6 Comments

  1. helen hanna

    there is no more divisive evil ignorant and selfish person in the world than nancy pelosi who runs the san francisco democratic mafia. the clintons are her equals. poor san francisco. this beautiful city deserves better than the disgusting politicians who have run it for 30 years, willie brown, pelosi, feinstein, now the newbies harris and newsom.

  2. Mark Rabine

    I don’t get it. Why can’t we approve both measures and they divide the pot? What am I missing?

    • Joe Eskenazi Post author

      Mark —

      The way the measures are structured, only one can win. That was ensured by a clause in the homeless/housing measure that states that it is the winner if it wins and receives more votes (Kim claims her measure does not have a “poison pill,” but her opponents differ and the City Attorney will not weigh in on a signature-driven measure). But, also, if the homeless/housing measure wins and receives *fewer* votes, it does not take effect. This way, we avoid having the commercial gross receipts tax jump from 0.3 percent to 5.2 percent.

      As you know, it’s hard to pick and choose which details to include in a complex and detail-laden story. Suffice to say, like “Highlander,” there can be only one.

      As noted in the article, there is a great deal of frustration around City Hall and elsewhere that your solution not only wasn’t followed but that it wasn’t even apparently seriously considered.

  3. Ramsés

    What polling are you referring to..? I just barely got a call polling on this last Sunday. Clearly, this polling result isn’t available yet.
    “Polling has revealed that both measures are popular. But, if forced to choose, fewer voters prefer the childcare measure. And yet, through a quirk of law and a deft strategic move by Kim, fewer voters are needed for her measure to win.”

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