In the US, we often think of the Government in terms of a legislative branch that makes our laws, a judicial branch that interprets those laws, and an executive branch that enforces them. At the end of the day, however, laws are just intentions and ideas if they don’t have some sort of substance to back them up. The resources that make up this substance are mostly determined through a government’s budget.
Unfortunately, for at least one person in San Francisco, the division of powers in the budget process is a little more confusing than it is for the legal process. In San Francisco, most people have considered the budget process has been fairly straight-forward for a good while: In May, the Mayor, as executive of the City, drafts a budget which she or he submits to the Board of Supervisors. The Board reviews that draft first in committee, and later in full before passing an amended version. The Mayor usually prepares the draft in private, without any public oversight. This Board review and amendment process is an important part of the process which allows the public to weigh in on budget priorities.
Over the past years, this has mostly worked out well. But in 2008, Mayor Newsom has introduced a legal novelty: He has begun using discretion that he believes is granted him under the City Charter to make the unilateral decision to withhold certain funding.
Under the Charter, the Mayor is granted the authority to stop spending in times of income shortfalls so that the City can operate on a balanced budget. The assumption is that he or she will do this in accordance with the priorities of the people of San Francisco. But it’s hard to see how that could possibly be the case with the two rounds of cuts we have already seen in 2008.
The Mayor’s Office admitted that the first round of cuts (made almost immediately after the Budget was signed into law, and while the City’s financial situation had not changed) were retaliatory, and aimed at the unions and organizations that worked together to convince the Board of Supervisors to amend the Mayor’s draft budget. In the words of the Mayor’s spokesman, “Those who worked collaboratively with the mayor’s office to arrive at a balanced budget could expect to have their priorities honored.” When the Human Services Agency submitted cuts that would have avoided lay-offs, the Mayor sent the proposal back, insisting that filled positions be eliminated. It’s hard to paint this as anything other than an intimidation tactic.
The second round of cuts is more obviously necessary: The whole country has hit an economic crisis, and the impacts will be very real for San Francisco’s projected revenues. Cuts really do have to be made. However, the cuts that have been chosen will likely exacerbate health problems and cause deaths. While poor people, people of color, women, queer people, and the massive cross-section between these populations that form the bulk of our city will be the hardest hit, the impacts will be very real for all of us. You can take a look at the list of cuts here.
This is not the only possible way! Cuts are necessary, but there are other places in the budget from which cuts can be taken without causing so much damage to our city. Check out some proposed alternative lists here. If you’d like to propose other potential cuts, send us an e-mail at email@example.com.
There’s more that you can do. Please read our constantly-updated “What’s To Be Done?” post here.