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Nearly 81 percent of registered San Franciscans cast a ballot in 2016. And, as of Friday, 16,000 more vote-by-mail ballots had been received in City Hall this year than the total number of mail ballots four years prior. It’s not inconceivable that 85 percent of registered San Franciscans will vote in this year’s election.
Last week, I wrote about how Covid-19 restrictions have hamstrung traditional Get Out The Vote-type efforts, perhaps leaving an opening for big money ad campaigns of the sort this city has previously repelled. What’s more, altered voting patterns render it difficult not only to predict outcomes but to parse results as they come in on Election Day and thereafter.
Regardless, people are voting here. In droves.
The gravity of this year’s presidential election — with its front-end voter suppression, back-end efforts to discount legitimate votes and the ever-looming threat of armed yahoos — is more of a distraction than ever from the alphabet soup of propositions up and down the San Francisco ballot, as well as our citywide races.
That’s understandable. There are nightmarish scenarios that could come into play in the coming days and weeks, let alone over the course of the next few years. But these are not insignificant local items. And, while this year may be the exception, by and large the outcomes of local elections will affect your life more than any other.
The election — locally and nationally — may well turn out to be one of agony or ecstasy. A period we’ll look back on fondly or ruefully, but not in-between. A moment when we’ll wonder why we were so pessimistic or wonder why we ever held out any optimism at all.
Locally, the measures meant to tax the wealthy and/or fund the government will either pass — and everyone other than the folks paying those taxes will raise socially distant glasses and offer socially distant cheers, and get about to spending that much-needed cash — or they’ll fail and set off a wave of denunciations and bruising new rounds of budget cuts.
There is quite a decent chance it’ll be the latter. The lines of recrimination are already being formed. And, no matter how the voting turns out, a report from the controller is scheduled for a week after the election to assess the city’s fiscal well-being.
Here’s a preview: Not great!
There are a lot of revenue measures on the ballot this year, which has spurred a great deal of revenue being amassed to convince you to vote “no.”
Prop. A is a $487.5 million bond aimed at obtaining housing or shelter for the homeless and mentally ill as well as working on roads and parks and other things that poll well; Prop. F is a consensus revamp of our city business tax system that will blow a roughly $135 million dollar hole in the budget if it fails; Prop. I doubles the transfer tax on the sellers of properties of $10 million or more; Prop. J is a parcel tax to fund the school district that nobody has much hope for — and, if it fails, the very real possibility is that the district asks the city for money and sparks a titanic battle between the board and mayor; Prop. L would tax businesses when their CEO earns more than 100 times workers’ median wage; and Prop. RR is a small sales tax to support Caltrain.
Here’s the situation, in a nutshell: The city — and, especially, Mayor London Breed — want Prop. A badly and need Prop. F. But a wave of business and development money aimed at derailing Prop. I has induced an anti-tax conflagration — and Props. A and F are both looking pretty flammable.
If Prop. A were to fail to receive the necessary two-thirds vote — and this could very well happen — it would not only upset the city’s fiscal apple cart but serve as a striking rebuke for Breed and an unsteadying of her political footing moving forward. She has fund-raised heavily for Prop. A and has become — rather literally — the face of the campaign.
That’s a stark contrast from Prop. F, for which the mayor has raised hardly a thin dime and has minimally supported. And that’s a bit odd, because while it would be inconvenient if Prop. A fails, it would be fiscally calamitous if Prop. F did. And not down the road, like Prop. A, but — especially anticipating what the controller has in store for us — right now.
The political burden of formulating a new, starker budget without the Prop. F infusion, meanwhile, will fall very largely upon the mayor — who is, again, not doing all that much to ensure Prop. F’s passage. If Breed was irritated by a platoon of Black Lives Matter protesters demonstrating in front of her home, one could only imagine the response to a battalion of laid-off unionized workers banging pots and pans.
If you’re sympathetic to the mayor, here’s what you’d say if one or more of these tax measures goes down:
Mayor Breed’s fundraising base was not amenable to Prop. F, and our city’s donor class and captains of industry were displeased that so many taxes were thrown on the ballot along with this so-called “consensus” measure. City workers getting raises while large numbers of San Franciscans leave town or hunt for work is a bad look. What’s more, there’s no small amount of irritation with Supervisor Dean Preston, who put Prop. I, to tax sellers of high-end real-estate, on the ballot — inducing a predictable and predicted anti-tax campaign. The likelihood of a big-dollar blowback endangering multiple tax measures was something Preston was warned about not only by the mayor’s people but by his progressive allies.
If you’re less amenable to the mayor’s way of thinking, however, you’d say:
Blaming Preston for the actions of the Chamber of Commerce and big-money developers is the political equivalent of “Well, what was she wearing?” The folks running the Bay Area-wide anti-tax drive are, in fact, the mayor’s ostensible allies and, far from horses’ heads being put in their beds, they seem to be operating with impunity. Finally, as recently as 2018, the mayor urged voters not to approve taxes on high-grossing businesses because she implied that her own government simply could not be trusted with the money — which, kinda sorta, undermines her ask today.
It’s alarming how often the political atmosphere in this city inspires a comparison to the movie Rashomon, in which viewers were left to grapple with conflicting and incompatible versions of the truth.
But, in this case, these arguments aren’t incompatible.
Much or all of this can be true. Which arguments carry the day depends on the inclinations of the people hearing them. And, of course, the outcome of the election.
Finally, there is one measure on your ballot that could provide a windfall for San Francisco — but has generated comparatively little local rancor or coverage.
That’d be Prop. 15, which partially undoes Prop. 13 of 1978, and would open up large commercial properties to re-assessment. For a city like San Francisco, this is essentially a license to print money; it could generate perhaps half a billion or more dollars a year in the not-too-distant future. What’s more, since the city’s debt limit is coupled to its assessed property values, vastly augmenting the latter would result in swelling the former as well.
So: We could be the beneficiaries of far more property tax dollars, and also see our bonding capacity vastly increased.
But that’s a few years down the road — if it happens at all. In the meantime, voting ceases at 8 p.m. on Nov. 3. And, after that, it’s all over but the shouting and the counting — and, depending on how the counting goes, perhaps lots more shouting.
Stay tuned. We are living in interesting times.