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Majority rules

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In San Francisco, measures to raise funds that are put on the ballot by citizens through petition signatures can be approved by a simple majority vote. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)
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Last November, a majority of San Franciscans voted in favor of two proposed ordinances put on the ballot to address the challenging problem of homelessness. However, the crazy result was that the non-controversial ballot measure that designated funding for homeless families (Proposition S) won 63 percent of the vote — but failed. While the highly divisive ballot measure to eliminate shelter for homeless families (Proposition Q) barely eked out 50 percent of the vote — but passed. How could this anti-democratic result be possible?

For decades, a flawed legal interpretation of the decision by California voters to restrain politicians from raising our taxes has prevailed. That flawed interpretation said that, when voters decided to apply a two-thirds vote supermajority requirement to approve tax measures that dedicated funds to a specific purpose, the voters intended to restrict all ballot measures — including measures put on the ballot by the citizens through the collection of petition signatures from one another. This never made any sense because, in passing those two-thirds tax vote requirements in 1978 (Proposition 13), 1996 (Proposition 218) and 2010 (Proposition 26), California voters each time made crystal clear that they were seeking to increase oversight over free-spending politicians — not slap handcuffs on themselves. However, that faulty legal interpretation prevailed and its repercussions were profound. Any ballot measure that raised or reallocated taxes or fees — as last year’s Prop. S did — required a supermajority two-thirds vote to pass, even when citizens rather than politicians put the measure on the ballot.

No longer. A groundbreaking recent decision by the California Supreme Court has fundamentally rearranged the political landscape on the profoundly important question of whether a majority of voters can decide what to do with their own money. In California Cannabis Coalition v. City of Upland, decided in late August, the court ruled that ballot measures put on the ballot by the citizens themselves are fundamentally different and deserve far broader protections than ballot measures by politicians. According to an official opinion memorandum issued recently by the San Francisco City Attorney, this ruling means that, going forward, measures to raise funds that are put on the ballot by citizens through petition signatures can be approved by a simple majority vote.

At a moment when San Franciscans every day see a stark divide between the glut of wealth that has come into The City and the starvation of services to clean our streets, fix Muni and preserve affordable housing, this decision opens the door to solutions that have been largely off the table. For example, the following three ballot measures would now have a strong chance of passage next year if put on the ballot by citizen petition signatures:

– A ballot measure for a 50 cent per-ride user fee on Uber/Lyft, paid for by the companies themselves, to make Muni free for all San Francisco residents.
– A ballot measure imposing a fee on private commercial offices in public piers on the waterfront to pay for the waterfront recreation, arts programs and cultural activities that a recent poll found 70 percent of voters desperately want.
– A ballot measure enacting a “Blight Tax” on empty storefronts and vacant apartment buildings to support legacy small businesses and help for tenants facing eviction from their homes.

San Francisco is in the depths of a crisis of affordability and livability. It’s clear that politicians at City Hall who have given lip service to solutions have failed to actually do the hard work to fix the problems. It’s time for “we the people” to step up. By restoring “majority rules,” this historic decision by the California Supreme Court hands citizens powerful new tools to protect what we love about our city. Now, it’s up to us to use them.

Jon Golinger is the author of the book “Saving San Francisco’s Heart: How to win elections, reclaim our city, and keep SF a special place.”

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