It’s a lot easier to pass general taxes rather than special taxes, which makes them very appealing to politicians. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

It’s a lot easier to pass general taxes rather than special taxes, which makes them very appealing to politicians. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

A dishonest way to raise taxes

http://sfexaminer.com/category/the-city/sf-news-columns/sally-stephens/

It shouldn’t be easy to raise taxes. Over the past 40 years, the people of California have passed a number of measures, starting with Proposition 13, that required voter approval for new taxes. We wanted to make it harder for government to increase the financial burden on property owners, taxpayers and residents.

But local governments, especially in San Francisco, have figured out how to get around some of those voter approval requirements to make it easier to raise taxes.

For example, the mayor and Board of Supervisors have put three tax increases — Propositions K (sales tax), V (soda tax) and W (real estate transfer tax) — on the November ballot that, because the politicians haven’t been entirely honest about what the taxes are for, will need a simple majority to pass, instead of the two-thirds majority that should be required.

For decades, property taxes, parcel taxes and infrastructure bonds have needed a two-thirds majority to pass, as have “special taxes,” those that are levied for specific purposes or programs. So-called “general taxes,” those that are not for any designated programs but instead are directed to The City’s General Fund, need only a simple majority — more than 50 percent — to pass. Clearly, it’s a lot easier to pass general rather than special taxes. That makes them very appealing to politicians.

The three ballot propositions in San Francisco this November were all written as general taxes, with money going to the General Fund and not for any specifically designated program or use. Yet, it’s clear that the mayor and supervisors intend for money from the taxes to be used for very specific programs.

Consider the sales tax increase, Prop. K: The proposition says the money generated will go into The City’s General Fund. But according to neighboring Prop. J, the politicians want Prop. K’s money to actually go to specific homeless and transportation programs.

They should have combined Propositions J and K. The resulting proposition would have spelled out exactly what the sales tax increase would fund and, therefore, would have been a special tax. But the politicians knew they might not be able to convince two-thirds of the people that the tax was needed, while they could easily talk 50 percent into supporting it. Calling it a general tax — even though it really is a special tax — makes it so much easier to pass.

Remember last year’s proposed soda tax? It specified health and education programs that the money generated would fund, so it clearly needed a two-thirds majority. It didn’t get that many votes, so it wasn’t enacted, but it did win more than 50 percent of the votes. The politicians noticed.

This year’s soda tax no longer specifies which programs it will pay for and says only that money generated will go to the General Fund. Supporters assure voters the tax will be used for similar programs as last year’s version, but there’s nothing to guarantee that happens. But the lower voter threshold means Prop. V is more likely to pass.

With Prop. W, The City will collect new taxes on the sale of property more than $5 million and put that money into the General Fund. Therefore, it’s a general tax with the lower voter threshold. But the proponent’s argument in the Voter Information Pamphlet notes that the Board of Supervisors passed a resolution in July — the same time the tax was put on the ballot — that identifies a very specific use for Prop. W funds: free City College for San Francisco residents.

It’s clear that Prop. W is really a special tax disguised to look like a general one, simply to get the lower voter threshold.

It shouldn’t be easy to raise taxes. I wish our politicians had the courage and honesty of their convictions and had taken the time and effort to convince two-thirds of the voters that these special taxes were necessary and good for The City, instead of pretending they were simply easier-to-pass general taxes. Their political sleight of hand openly thwarts the will of the people that special taxes require a higher voter threshold. The end shouldn’t justify the means.

Do not reward this political bait-and-switch. This November, vote no on Propositions K, V and W.

Sally Stephens is an animal, park and neighborhood activist who lives in the West of Twin Peaks area.

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