The budget process for 2008-2009 was harrowing. “Harrowing” may seem like a strong term for sedentary squabbling over line items, but consider how this document affects all of our daily lives: Every municipal service, every function, is governed by the budget. The budget in large part determines the number of police in your neighborhood. It determines whether or not your street’s potholes get repaved. If you’ve got a house, it determines whether or not the MUNI stop out front will have a bus shelter.
For many San Franciscans, the budget means a great deal more than that. The Board of Supervisors’ Budget and Finance Committee hearings of June 19 lasted over thirteen hours. San Franciscans without housing pleaded with the supervisors to keep their emergency shelters open. Nurses begged for funding to care for the city’s ill. Children pleaded that their community centers remain open. San Franciscans fought hard for quality of life, and for the saving of lives.
And in many cases, they won. The Board of Supervisors passed a budget that reinstated many of the social services that the Mayor had cut in May, and Mayor Newsom signed the budget into law at the beginning of August.
This was cause for celebration. Until, that is, August 12. The Board of Supervisors left for recess, and the Mayor wasted no time in cutting $4.8 million from homeless people’s, senior citizens’, and youth services. Among the cuts will be Tenderloin Health drop-in: The front end to one of the biggest service providers in one of San Francisco’s poorest neighborhoods will have to halve its hours. The Disability Evaluation Assistance Program (better known as DEAP) will close, preventing disabled homeless people from accessing Social Security benefits. Cuts to a homeless families’ rental subsidy will also have traumatic impacts for homeless communities.
How did all this happen? The City of San Francisco was working with a Brobdingnagian $6.5 billion budget—the largest it had ever had. Why were San Francisco’s more vulnerable citizens scrapping for what amounts to pocket change?
More surreally, why did the Mayor take the axe to programs funded by a budget he’d signed less than two weeks earlier—especially with no impending fiscal crises?
The short—and disturbing—answer is vengeance. “Those who worked collaboratively with the mayor’s office to arrive at a balanced budget could expect to have their priorities honored,” mayoral spokesman Nathan Ballard told the San Francisco Chronicle. The cuts were manifestly a stab at the unions—particularly SEIU—that had refused voluntary cuts to labor in order to fill in for the City’s failure to seek, let alone collect, adequate revenues. Yet many of these cuts target non-profit social services. It’s possible that this is a divide-and-conquer tactic to break up the labor-non-profit alliance that opposed the Mayor’s law-and-order May proposed budget. But this is speculation: If Nathan Ballard’s been telling the Chron as much, they haven’t been printing it.
But August 12 was not the beginning: Communities have been trying to counter cuts to these programs since the release of the Mayor’s proposed budget in May. Yet the municipal budget is larger than it has ever been before. Why are we fighting for exceedingly small amounts of money for vital services with a swelling budget?
Perhaps in his jockeying for a shot at the governorship of California, Mr. Newsom has fallen under the voodoo possession of a shade of a former occupant of that post: Ronald Wilson Reagan. Under the thrall of that erstwhile executive, supply-side thought has seen a rebirth. Ladies and gentlemen, meet Gavinomics. Shorn of the municipally irrelevant baggage of monetarist approaches to inflation, Gavinomics is a tighter, cleaner version of its Cold War era predecessor:
- Oppose Progressive Taxation. Massive projected deficits in the 2008-2009 fiscal year have made it politically necessary for practically every San Francisco politician to support some new revenue measure on the November ballot. But while most elected politicians are supporting progressive taxes such as an increase in the real estate transfer tax (Proposition N) and the mending of loopholes in the payroll tax (Proposition Q), the Mayor has lent his support only to Proposition O, which converts an already-existing Telephone Users Tax to a modernized Emergency Response Fee. With an ever-growing budget, a failure to take a strong stand on new revenue measures is nothing short of fiscal irresponsibility.
- Deregulate Deregulate Deregulate. Newsom? Deregulation? Really? San Francisco politicos’ predilection for legislation of the private sector has been big news, of late, both locally and nationally, and the Mayor, with his recent support for a ban on cigarettes in drug stores, has not escaped his portion of the limelight. But Newsom’s policies have mostly been trivial publicity ploys. When it comes to more serious legislation, Newsom has repeatedly come down on the side of private enterprise against public interest. For example, despite his avowed support of all things green, Newsom’s energy policy is run by PG&E, and he has come down in opposition to the Clean Energy Act. In a recent New York Times story, Newsom said of municipal regulations, “I think we’ve hit a point of saturation… And I’m trying to make that point to the Board.”
- Cut Government Funding (except defense). Reaganite small government was a force of tremendous social destruction, but it was a far from realized ideal: Despite disemboweling cuts, Reagan’s non-defense outlays increased every year of his presidency. Similarly, under Gavinomics, spending has increased in several budget areas aside from the Police Department. This growth, however, has not necessarily been in keeping with growth in the total budget. The results are tragic: The Mayor’s May proposed budget included 150 new positions in San Francisco’s vital Dudes with Guns Sector, while the shelter system, poor people’s healthcare, and labor interests saw devastating cuts. The growth of the Human Services Agency’s budget has roughly kept abreast of inflation. Meanwhile, the Police Department’s budget is 7.2% beyond the growth due it from inflation. 7.2 lousy percentage points may not seem like much until you realize they amount to more than six times the service cuts the Mayor made this past month.
The cuts that Reagan made to the Department of Housing and Urban Development in the early 1980s (building off of smaller cuts under Carter) were the primary and proximate cause of modern homelessness—all in the name of an unproven ideology that sought to encourage the rich to get richer (‘cause a rising tide capsizes all boats), and the poor to change their ways. A quarter century later, in San Francisco, our Mayor is sacrificing important homeless people’s services on the altars of vengeance and social control. Reagan would be appalled, one supposes, by Newsom’s laudable support for same-sex marriage. And Newsom would be unlikely to invade Grenada. But regardless of nominal party affiliation, regardless of jargon of choice, a dedication to the interests of the financial élite and a disdain for the interests of the poor result in remarkably similar fiscal policies.
At press time, Hizonner is in Denver, rocking out with “Generation Obama.” But in San Francisco, it feels like Morning in America.