Budget’s hard choices no surprise

When the city and county of San Francisco must cope with a $338 million deficit in next fiscal year’s record-breaking $6.5 billion budget, all the available choices will be in various shades of ugly. And every proposed cut or rate boost will be adamantly opposed by some element of The City’s political structure or community interests.

We are now in the opening scenes of City Hall’s annual springtime morality play. Mayor Gavin Newsom just met his June 2 requirement to present the Board of Supervisors with a balanced budget draft, and the first angry complaints are already in.

From now until the July 31 deadline to pass a final budget, the public will be treated to a traditional pageant of irate complaints from all sides, demands to save favorite programs, insistence that departmental workloads cannot be met if staffing is reduced or frozen, spectacular tugs-of-war to drag away funding from one cause to another, emotion-packed mass protest meetings and the usual fierce counter-accusations between the mayor and the supervisors.

Yet throughout these all-too-familiar performances, practical horse-trading quietly happens behind the scenes. As final deadline approaches, a gerrymandered structure of funding shifts and least-painful cuts somehow emerges to balance an ever-growing budget yet again.

However, there are predictably few, if any, structural fixes of the underlying spending/revenue gap — because that would involve either seriously difficult reductions or new taxes. So San Franciscans can be sure they will get to enjoy their annual cliffhanger drama yet again next spring.

The Examiner is not about toargue that San Francisco politicians historically have established a praiseworthy record of prudent money management. But to be fair, much of The City’s recent dilemma is triggered by circumstances beyond its control. It is doubtful that we would now be in $338 million worth of trouble if the state and federal governments did not try to tame their own deficits by cutting back on local grants; and if well-meaning San Francisco voters were not so enthusiastic about setting aside vast chunks of The City budget for various good causes.

Mayor Newsom visited The Examiner editorial board Wednesday and for 90 minutes delivered a bravura one-man show about why he concluded his more controversial choices were the best available among even-worse alternatives. Whether or not we ultimately agree with all the proposed cuts, increases and money juggling, there is no denying that the mayor has cogent arguments for each difficult budgetary choice.

So now it is up to the Board of Supervisors to try coming up with better ideas about how to balance a $338 million shortfall — or at least ideas strong enough to survive the harsh process. It would be nice if this could be done without a lot of self-righteous posturing, for once.

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