SF’s Transit Set-Aside is Flawed, Divisive

by on July 31, 2014

Only a week after stiffing nonprofit workers on raises, Supervisors Scott Wiener and David Chiu are at it again.

Now the two are driving a transit set-aside ballot measure for November that will almost certainly deny nonprofits any increases next year. The reason? The set aside punches a $22 million hole in a budget that both supervisors found was already too tight to fairly pay nonprofit workers. Their ill-conceived measure not only takes money from nonprofits, but overall diverts $22  million from vital city services.

Wiener sees no problem, claiming that if his measure passes “it will fit into the budget just fine.” Left unsaid is how $22 million in cuts “fits just fine” in programs outside the transit world.

The Trouble With Set-Asides

Set-asides reduce the ability of elected officials  to set budget priorities. They are necessary in cases like the Children’s Fund, because children’s advocates—led by Margaret Brodkin and Coleman Youth Advocates— spent years trying to increase funding for kids’ services only to have their efforts repeatedly rejected by the mayor and Board.

In contrast to children’s advocates who went to the November 1991 ballot only after coming away with nothing in 1988, 1989 and 1990, transit advocates have proved so successful that there is a $500 million public transit bond on this November’s ballot.

Unlike the Children’s Budget set-aside, Wiener’s ballot measure came out of nowhere. Those who think the city has needs in addition to transit, such as affordable housing, park maintenance, schools, street cleaning and other vital services, are likely unaware how Wiener’s measure assures cuts in all these areas next year;  they will not be happy when they find out.

A bond that Mayor Lee has deemed his top priority. In addition, the Supes added over $1 million in additional pedestrian safety/bike/transit funding in its addback process.

If children’s advocates in 1990 had secured mayoral and Board support for a $500 million children’s bond, and gotten over $1 million in addbacks each year, they would never have needed to go to the ballot for a set-aside. In contrast, this Board and Mayor have prioritized increasing public transit funding, even at the expense of shortchanging nonprofit workers and city programs serving the most vulnerable.

Wiener, Chiu and many transit advocates like to depict Mayor Lee as Scrooge when it comes to transit funding. They continually point to the mayor’s  “abandoning” the Vehicular License Fee for the November ballot, despite this being “recommended by his own task force.”

Mayor Lee only  “abandoned” the VLF for this November because polls showed voters strongly opposed it. As the SF Chronicle’s Matier & Ross reported on May 7, “a poll of 500 likely San Francisco voters – conducted for Lee by EMC Research from March 21-27 – found just 24 percent supported the fee increase. That is far short of the simple majority required for passage. Sixty-nine percent were opposed, and the remaining 7 percent were undecided.

Curiously, Aaron Bialick of StreetsblogSF cited the Matier & Ross story in reporting that the poll found 44% approval for the VLF. Bialick has repeatedly bashed Lee for not moving forward on the VLF, yet even with his misreading of the poll results—and 24% v 44% is a big difference—you can’t go forward with ballot measure when your support is under 50% before the opposition campaign kicks in.

Why do Wiener and transit advocates perpetuate the lie that the mayor essentially gave away transit dollars by not going forward with the VLF? Because it pins the blame on Lee, rather than themselves, for the $22 million in cuts to nonprofits and other popular programs that will occur if the transit set-aside wins.

Wiener knows perfectly well that the VLF had no chance of passage this November. He failed to produce a single poll showing it could win. Nor does he have any basis for believing the VLF can pass in 2016. In fact, if voters pass the $500 million public transit bond this November, they will be even less inclined to raise their taxes for another transit funding measure.

MTA Funding Already Outpaces Population Growth

Wiener’s chief argument for the set aside is premised on its being necessary to ensure that MTA spending rises with population growth. Who can argue with that logic?

Well. what Wiener does not publicize is that over the past decade, MTA spending has increased at nearly ten times the rate of the city’s population.  The city is already going far beyond the goals that Wiener claims only a set-aside can deliver!

So if Wiener simply wants to ensure that MTA’s budget grows with the city’s population, he doesn’t need a  set-aside or to raid the general fund of $22 million to do so.. In fact, this ten-fold increase in MTA spending over population growth could boost arguments that MTA has been overfunded in comparison to park maintenance, street cleaning, health services, and other vital city programs. Or that it has not used its funds wisely.

Everyone agrees that MUNI could use more money. But so can a wide array of city services. Nearly all are making do with budgets that have not increased at ten times the level of  population increase over the past decade.

David Chiu’s Role

Mayor Lee asked Board President Chiu to oppose the transit-set aside. Chiu refused. This is likely attributable to his political alliance with Wiener. Wiener’s endorsement of Chiu was designed to cut into Campos’ strength in the gay community. Chiu would return the favor by backing the gay Wiener in a likely 2018 State Assembly race against Asian-American Jane Kim (this assumes the winner of the Chiu-Campos race runs for Mark Leno’s vacated seat)

I think Chiu has been too clever here. By backing the transit set-aside, Chiu has forfeited claims that he is more “fiscally responsible” than Assembly rival Campos. And Chiu’s alignment with Wiener against the mayor will shift many Lee supporters into backing Campos.

SEIU Local 1021 helped persuade Supervisor Eric Mar not to back the set-aside. As other labor unions and nonprofits start learning about the impact of the ballot measure, I would expect an all-out campaign to defeat it.

If nonprofits can’t get more than a 1.5% increase during the current boom year, how will the Supes “find” the money when they have $22 million less next year? Based on the past five years of budgets, nonprofits should expect budget freezes if not cuts if the Wiener-Chiu set-aside passes.

Wiener claims “this is really about priorities and choices — that’s what the budget is about.” But a $500 million public transit bond on the ballot is a powerful statement of the city’s priorities. Incredibly, this massive commitment to new public transit spending still leaves some transit activists convinced they are getting  shortchanged.

Instead of moving in a progressive direction and seeking to get additional money from the top, transit activists have chosen to raid $22 million from other vital city services. This strategy is divisive and damaging to the city’s most vulnerable. It is not how activists should go about building a broad, economically diverse movement for transit justice.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron.

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Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the Director of San Francisco’s Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which publishes Beyond Chron. Shaw is the author of four books on activism, including The Activist's Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century, and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. His new book is The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

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