San Francisco is facing a paralyzing $522 million budget deficit. The City’s total discretionary fund is just $1.2 billion, meaning city officials must find a way to close a deficit that totals nearly half their available budget.
Even with these dire realities, there are some city officials proposing an additional strain on the budget. They want to add to San Francisco’s budget problems by getting into the retail electricity business.
San Francisco politicians have already spent millions of taxpayer dollars on public-power efforts and, despite the historic deficit, are now proposing to spend $600,000 of taxpayer money on public relations for their public-power proposals.
Marin County, which has its own $20 million deficit, is implementing a similar plan called Marin Clean Energy. So far, the public investment is $1.3 million and growing.
Spending that much money on such a risky venture raises many questions, especially during a recession. No matter how you feel about government plans to enter the retail electricity business, don’t taxpayers deserve the right to approve costly and risky plans before millions, or even billions, of public dollars are spent?
Right now, politicians are required to seek voter approval before they borrow money for most tax and bond decisions. But they are free to spend or borrow a virtually unlimited amount of public money on forays into the retail electricity business, with taxpayers obligated to repay the debt. And if the venture goes bad, then drastic rate hikes and a taxpayer bailout could easily follow.
The Taxpayers Right to Vote Act, Proposition 16 on the June ballot, will give voters the voice they need. It requires that local voters approve any local government decision to spend public money, or take on public debt, to enter the retail electricity business. Like most other special tax and bond proposals — building new schools or police and fire stations — a two-thirds vote would be required.
Based on the past five years, California voters have been generous with their tax dollars when the plans presented were sound. Nearly half the local ballot measures requiring a two-thirds approval have passed. If a community decides that it makes financial sense to invest their public money in an electricity venture, they will have the power to approve it.
But they deserve to make that choice.
Opponents are making false claims that the Taxpayers Right to Vote Act would hinder efforts to provide green energy, but they fail to acknowledge that the measure protects more than taxpayers — it also protects efforts to provide more renewable energy.
The Taxpayers Right to Vote Act is an essential safeguard against wasting scarce taxpayer dollars. It’s our money. We should make the choice. Please join me in voting yes on Prop. 16.
Christopher Wright is executive director of the San Francisco Committee on Jobs.