A lazy way to govern

A lazy way to govern


In 43 days, San Franciscans will face a ballot with 25 local propositions and 17 state measures. This enormous ballot reflects a breakdown in government’s ability to do effectively the very thing we elected them to do: govern.

When politicians can’t find consensus or fear losing a vote of their colleagues on an issue, they turn to the voters and say, “You decide.” The problem is that we, as voters, often don’t have the depth of knowledge about the issue or enough context to see how the issue fits into the larger picture — things we need to make the hard decisions that the ballot asks of us.

On Nov. 8, San Franciscans will vote on three funding propositions: street tree maintenance (Proposition E); homeless housing and services and transportation improvements (Proposition J); and services for seniors and adults with disabilities (Proposition I).

The propositions “set aside” money in The City’s budget for these programs. The money must be given to them no matter what else happens over the decades that the set-asides remain in effect.

Set-asides take discretion and flexibility on budget decisions away from the mayor and the Board of Supervisors. San Francisco’s total budget is a mind-blowing $9.6 billion, but much of that is not available for our elected officials to allocate for The City’s needs.

Nearly half of the budget consists of money generated by “enterprise departments,” like the Public Utilities Commission or the airport, which are not funded by tax dollars. These departments essentially pay their own way by charging fees for the services they provide, and, as a result, their revenue can only be used within their departments. For example, money from sewer rates cannot be used to fund new airport terminals.

The money that’s available to the mayor and supervisors to allocate is the General Fund. That’s where our property, sales and business taxes end up. In the current budget, the General Fund contains about $4.9 billion.

But about 40 percent of the General Fund is already reserved for set-asides approved in previous elections, including for Muni, libraries, children’s programs and parks — the last one only approved in June. So, out of San Francisco’s $9.6 billion budget, the mayor and supervisors have access to about $2.9 billion. This discretionary money funds many important city services, including paving streets, police and fire, and public health.

Every time voters approve a new set-aside, however, there’s less money left for these city services. Each set-aside is essentially a trade-off — we will fund this program, but that may mean another needed program cannot be funded.

The three set-asides on the November ballot will take an additional $209 million out of the discretionary General Fund. That may not seem like much, compared to the size of the fund. But, if approved, the new set-asides could mean an HIV prevention program isn’t funded, new fire trucks aren’t bought or fewer streets are paved.

Those are the kinds of conscious trade-offs the mayor and supervisors make when they argue about the budget every year. They debate which deserving programs get funded and which other equally worthy programs don’t. If we don’t like their choices, we can vote them out of office.

But when voters decide on a set-aside, we’re not asked if we want to fund parks, for example, at the expense of filling potholes. We’re just asked if we want to fund parks. Most vote for the benefit, without knowing its cost — what won’t get done because we funded the set-aside. It’s a seemingly painless popularity contest, and we vote with little understanding of potential budgetary consequences.

Budget battles at City Hall may be unpleasant, but they help us prioritize spending based on The City’s current needs. Departments have to prove the value of their programs to get funded. With set-asides, we lose that accountability and oversight of departmental spending.

Set-asides are a lazy, shortsighted way to deal with budgets. Regardless of how much we like the departments and programs that benefit, we simply cannot afford to lose so much budget flexibility.

In November, vote no on all set-asides. Vote no on Propositions E, I and J. Insist that our elected officials do their jobs.

Sally Stephens is an animal, park and neighborhood activist who lives in the West of Twin Peaks area.electionMayorProposition EProposition IProposition JSally StephensSan Francisco

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