The pollsters at Datamar Inc. say Jerry Sanders has widened his lead among high-propensity voters to 11 points over Donna Frye. If that's true, we suspect that it's Frye's talk about the possibility of a sales-tax increase that has likely voters snuggling up to Sanders.
Actually, here's a more accurate way to put it: it's the spin put on the tax proposal by Sanders and the editorial board of the Union-Tribune that has some voters moving away from Frye.
When the U-T mentions Frye's plan to get the city back on firm financial ground, it says the scheme rests largely on a "$1.1 billion" tax increase. Well, that's one way of looking at it. It's not surprising that voters would shy away from Frye when the information is presented that way. And it makes sense for the U-T to couch it in the harshest terms possible; the paper has endorsed Sanders, so it needs to make Frye look as distasteful as possible.
For his part, Sanders has followed the U-T's lead, capitalizing on the tax-increase fear factor in his new TV commercials.
Frye's idea is to find about $155 million annually by capping salaries, gaining an increased share of redevelopment property-tax revenue and halting payment toward benefits for future retirees that have been deemed by some to be illegally granted. Sanders says he's identified $180 million in savings-a number Frye disputes-by proposing layoffs, work furloughs, salary freezes, outsourcing, retirement-system reforms, Community Development Block Grant funding shifts. Both candidates' plans rely on proposals that are far from sure things-and these numbers can be nebulous, to say the least.
Let's say, for argument's sake, that all these proposals would actually result in the predicted savings. Given San Diego's sorry state of affairs, it's highly likely that neither candidate's initial financial recovery plan will get us to the Promised Land. The difference is that Frye has done the brave, yet probably suicidal thing: she's said a tax increase is likely in the cards.
To get the additional $100 million or so she thinks the city needs, on top of her initial plan, to maintain a minimal level of public services, she's chosen the option of increasing revenue rather than engaging in a bloodbath of massive city-staff layoffs and service cuts.
It's politically expedient, but incredibly disingenuous, for Sanders to criticize her for it, especially given that during the primary campaign, Sanders at first said he wouldn't rule out a tax increase but then flip-flopped under pressure from the Steve Francis campaign.
If we're right, and neither candidate can right the ship in the first wave of reforms, then Sanders will have to come up with a way to close the gap. He has said borrowing money is an option. Assuming the bond market will ever allow San Diego back into the game, when last we checked, borrowing costs lost of money in long-term debt service. That's a cost for future taxpayers. More layoffs and service cuts? We've already deferred badly needed infrastructure improvements. And haven't we already cut to the bone in terms of social services, libraries and parks? Layoffs of more than 100 mid-level managers are already in Sanders' plan. How many lower-paid employees can he fire before the city grinds to a halt?
Frye is proposing a sales-tax hike because she sees it as the only real last-resort option. She certainly isn't doing it as a campaign gimmick, for heaven's sake. Sanders said Tuesday on KPBS that Frye is using inflated annual-deficit numbers in order to "justify" a sales-tax increase-as if she thinks that's what'll get her elected. That makes no sense.
One of the reasons we're in the mess we're in is that San Diego is a low-revenue city, meaning it provides services while burdening its citizens with minimal taxes and fees. Isn't that why city officials have been raiding the pension fund lo these many years?
"Bowtie Bob" Kittle and his pals at the U-T insist on referring to Frye's proposal as a "$1.1 billion" tax increase. Sure, that's what it would generate over 10 years. But it would be just as easy to say Frye wants to tax you an additional $4 on that $800 couch you've had your eye on. She's asking you to chip in another 30 cents on your next purchase of a $60 shirt. Even a $30,000 new car would only cost you an extra $150. A good chunk of that $1.1 billion would be paid by visitors to San Diego, who should be paying more in hotel taxes anyway. If anything, the $1.1 billion figure should be a selling point. That's the revenue.
Don't want to pay more in taxes? We don't blame you; neither do we. But it just might be necessary-no matter who wins.