Supervisor Sean Elsbernd asked his colleague Jane Kim a worthwhile question at Monday’s Rules Committee meeting: “What is more important to [our] communities? Having dollars available for services? Or standing on a principle that has been deemed unconstitutional?”
Kim, for the record, prefers the latter, but we’ll get back to that.
The U.S. Supreme Court recently struck down part of Arizona’s system of publicly financing candidates for office. And it just so happens that San Francisco’s local public financing system basically has that same unlawful provision. So, Supervisors Elsbernd and Mark Farrell have proposed a perfectly rational solution: remove the unconstitutional element of our law before we get dealt another stunning and expensive loss in court.
Basically, we can no longer make public financing of one candidate contingent on the amount of money raised by another candidate. If you like public financing, the good news is that we don’t use that trick very much. Our public money is doled out to candidates almost entirely on the basis of what they raise for their own campaigns, regardless of how the other candidates are doing. However, after publicly financed candidates hit a certain limit — for mayoral candidates, this year it is $1.475 million — they can get additional public money based on the amount raised by the opposition, whether by a candidate or a committee. This “opposition matching” is what the Supreme Court proclaimed unconstitutional.
The new proposal by Elsbernd and Farrell would allow publicly financed candidates to continue to raise money for themselves after they hit the $1.475 million mark, but would cut off additional public money.
Yet instead of viewing this proposal as it is — a simple move to avoid a costly, hopeless lawsuit by stopping the flow of taxpayer money to the richest candidates — Kim acted like this was a general assault on public financing. It was nothing short of infuriating to watch a Stanford-educated official say, “This is litigation that I think is important for many of us to see forward in terms of what the ruling means for the future of public financing.” (Translation: Let’s sue.)
To which Elsbernd responded, “I think you are grasping at straws to stand on a principle that is going to end up costing The City hundreds of thousands of dollars and I think, as a fiduciary, that is a big mistake.”
Replied Kim, “It’s a risk I’m willing to take on this particular issue.”
The problem is that it’s the taxpayers of San Francisco who are taking the risk, and not Kim.
The full Board of Supervisors will vote on this proposal today.
City Attorney Dennis Herrera’s opposition to the Central Subway project is “summarized” in an 11-page document with Roman numeral footnotes.
As a lawyer, I both appreciate and groan when I see such boring policy documents. But I read it anyway, and I have to admit, it contains some compelling information — like the fact that the subway will cost $928 million dollars per mile for a net gain of 14 percent increase in ridership. That works out to $315,660 per new rider.
All of this second-guessing begs the question: What happens if we want out? According to Gerry Cauthen of Save Muni — a group that opposes the project — we have already spent $250 million on things like project design and utility box relocation. Pulling the plug on the Central Subway would mean eating that cost.
I’m still on the fence about this project, but it would be a shame if this turned into the Barry Zito of public works — something we hang on to not because it is the best choice, but because we can’t bear to walk away from the money we’ve already spent.
‘You know what really bugs me about City Hall?” is the beginning of many conversations I have. Increasingly, the next sentence involves “those debt things that we don’t even get to vote on!”
Ah yes, certificates of participation. If a city-owned asset were a car, a certificate of participation would be the title we give to the burly guy behind the counter at the pawn shop. He gives us money and we agree to pay it back at a morally questionable interest rate. If we fail to pay it back, he keeps the title.
All of this can be done without voter approval.
And while these municipal pawn brokers are actually fancy investors, the result is the same: City property can be put in hock by six supervisors. Currently, we owe about $592 million in certificates of participation.
Last Tuesday, Supervisor Mark Farrell introduced legislation that would make it more difficult to create such indebtedness. His proposal is a debt policy that would bind the Controller’s Office in the following ways:
- Prohibit such certificates from ever being used for operational costs and limit their use to capital-improvement projects.
- Require any issuance of such debts to identify the specific general fund revenue stream that would be used to pay it off.
- Limit the total amount of certificate indebtedness to 3.25 percent of discretionary money in the general fund.
I wish there was a prohibition against using such certificates to finance projects that have been rejected by the voters. Or heck, let’s mandate that all debt be voter-approved. But I’ll root for any law that chips away at the power of a pack of dreamers with limited math skills to make money magically appear by mortgaging our stuff.
When I spoke with him about the proposal, Farrell sounded optimistic that it would pass, even though it needs a two-thirds majority vote to become effective. Bless his heart. I hope he’s right.