Don’t Rush Toward Gas and Transportation Taxes

LA-Freeway-Xchange-110-105The governor and legislative leaders came out from behind closed doors with a transportation tax and road fix plan and demand to pass the measure through the legislature in one week. Feels a lot like the federal experience with the health care reform bill. And, like that measure, despite one party controlling the executive and legislative branch, the bill might not find necessary support.

The campaign to pressure wavering legislators to get behind the bill kicked off yesterday in Concord with a lineup of Governor Jerry Brown, Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon and Senate President pro tem Kevin de León teaming up with union members to visit Senator Steve Glazer’s district and convince Brown’s one-time aide to publicly embrace the tax increase.

I seem to remember unions opposed Glazer when he first ran because of his stand against BART strikes. Different time and different unions, perhaps, but Glazer is still behind that issue. There are indications that Glazer is holding out for a no-strike provision in the transportation bill before he decides if he will support it.

While Brown, De León and Rendon will play old-fashioned political hard ball with legislative members in attempting to secure the needed two-thirds vote to pass the tax increases, ultimately individual legislators are going to have to be satisfied that their constituents will swallow the tax increase.

Voting patterns and attitudes have changed since Gov. Gray Davis was kicked out of office in great part because he increased the vehicle tax. While just about everybody believes road repair is necessary for improving the state’s economy and for the general public’s mental health while driving congested highways, yet, the double whammy of an increased vehicle registration fee and 43% gas tax increase will be a hard sell. Especially, to less well-off constituents those who have to drive a long way to get to work.

The transportation issue and health care issue are different in many ways, but the idea of rushing through a measure that will pile new burdens on the public has a familiar feel to what happened recently in Washington.

The strategy behind quickly passing the two quite different bills is similar: Pass a measure before it gets tangled up in amendments. A lot of amendments can and should be had.

At the Concord news event yesterday, Gov. Brown said, “There is nothing more fundamental in the business of government than making sure the roads and bridges don’t fall apart, and they are falling apart.”

But if roads and bridges are a fundamental responsibility for government, why wasn’t attention paid to them when the state budget grew dramatically since Brown returned to the governor’s office?

Brown says if we don’t address the problem now it will only get worse—and more expensive to fix. Right on both counts. However, using current transportation related dollars that find the way to non-transportation services or including proposals that will allow for more cost efficient repairs would go a long way to convince voters that government is trying to get the job done right and give good value for their tax dollars. It might even convince voters to chip in a little more to get the job done.

Legislators like Glazer are independent and not so easily coerced. Legislators should hear  from their constituents before voting on the bill. Rushing through the transportation bill without sensible changes could result in the same fate as the health care bill.

This piece was originally published by Fox and Hounds Daily

BART janitor grossed $270K in pay and benefits last year

As reported by the Mercury News:

Liang Zhao Zhang’s job is to clean up BART stations in downtown San Francisco and clean up he does: He swept in $162,000 in overtime pay last year, records show.

Call Zhang the super janitor, an extraordinarily high earner in a field where the beloved school custodian rarely brings home more than $50,000 a year

Zhang grossed $235,000 in 2015, four times more than his base pay as a janitor. Benefits brought his total cost of employment at the rail agency to more than $270,000. And records show this isn’t the first time he raked in six-figure compensation at BART. Zhang received a combined $682,000 in pay and benefits over the last three years.

“Where do I sign up?” joked Lionel Hsu, a BART rider on Tuesday. …

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Ballot Measures That Could Cost You Big Bucks

VotedElection month is rapidly approaching. That’s right, “election month” because, since 2002, California voters have been freed from casting ballots in person on the official Election Day, which this year is November 8. Voting by mail begins October 10.

Polls show that many voters are disenchanted with the coming election because the major candidates for president are held in such low esteem. However, whether you are a strong advocate for a candidate or are disillusioned, it would be a huge mistake to ignore the ballot measures. Besides candidates, voters must decide on 17 state propositions and hundreds of local tax and bond measures designed to dip into taxpayers’ wallets.

A number of the state measures will impact taxpayers. Propositions 55 is an extension of California’s highest state income tax rate in the nation, which was sold as “temporary” when approved by voters in 2012. Proposition 56 would increase tobacco taxes to fund ongoing programs that will demand funding, even when the number of smokers declines. Proposition 53 is also important as it would expand taxpayers’ right to vote on major state bonds for mega-projects costing more than $2 billion.

To help voters make informed decisions, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association has created a special website, California Initiatives 2016, which has simple summaries of what the 17 initiatives will do and links to the websites of the sponsors and opponents of each measure. This helpful taxpayer tool can be found at http://cainitiatives2016.com.

However, for average citizens, the real pocket gougers will appear on local ballots. These include 184 school bonds with a face value of over $25 billion. The actual cost to taxpayers of these bonds, which place a lien on property to guarantee repayment, is more than double face value after interest is included.

Remember, whether or not voters think these local bonds are justified, taxpayers are entitled to good value for each hard earned tax dollar. This determination can best be made by researching the measure as well as the school district’s record of responding to the needs of students, parents and taxpayers. A complete list of these local school construction bonds can be found at http://www.bigbadbonds.com.

Taxpayer advocate Richard Michael, who maintains a bond tracking website, reminds us that promoters of these bonds are enamored with the following words to convince you to vote yes: “21st century;” “school improvement;” “college and career ready;” “technology;” “leaking roofs;” “asbestos;” “safety systems;” “aging facilities;” etc. To this list we would add “broken toilets,” a favorite with the Los Angeles Unified School District that managed to push through 5 bonds in a period of 13 years. The almost universal use of these words is unlikely a coincidence, since so many bond backers employ the same consultants who make recommendations on how to frame arguments to increase the chances of passage.

School bonds, of course are not the only tax measures that will appear on local ballots. There are other bonds, parcel taxes, sales taxes and utility user taxes to be voted on throughout California. For example, Bay Area voters are facing a $3.5 billion BART bond and Los Angeles County will decide on an additional half-cent sales tax to support the MTA that is suffering declining ridership. All of these local measures need careful scrutiny.

While voters can still wait until the traditional “first Tuesday after the first Monday” in November to vote in person, if you have done your homework and want to share what you have learned with family, friends, neighbors and contacts, don’t wait. In the November 2014 election, more than 60 percent of California voters cast votes by mail. Information on how to be a smart voter will not help anyone who has already cast their ballot.

Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association — California’s largest grass-roots taxpayer organization dedicated to the protection of Proposition 13 and the advancement of taxpayers’ rights.

This piece was originally published at HJTA.org

San Francisco’s Absurd Resistance to Change

San Francisco, CA, USAIt’s natural to be unsettled by change, but residents of San Francisco take resistance to change to absurd levels. In 1958, Gavin Elster — the shipping magnate played by Tom Helmore in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo — expressed San Francisco’s deeply engrained ambivalence to change well: “The things that spell San Francisco to me are disappearing fast.” A recent letter to the editor in the San Francisco Chronicle shared the typical modern lament: “Has San Francisco’s economic growth truly made it a more interesting place to live? Or just a place with more shiny but soulless places to spend money?”

Every day, similar hyperbole appears in the press, in social media, and in conversations: San Francisco is becoming a “hollow city” catering to highly paid tech workers. Most job growth has been in the Silicon Valley suburbs an hour or so south, and the “Google buses” ferrying young professionals up and down the peninsula have become symbols of an invasion. Contemporary San Franciscans resent them the way earlier locals resented the influx of Chinese in the 1870s and the gays and lesbians in the 1970s. This time around, it’s the young and well-paid newcomers who threaten the status quo, not the poor or marginalized. We hear that these people aren’t like us, they don’t share our values, and they should go back where they came from.

Paradoxically, in a city famed for new ideas, resistance to change is a cherished San Francisco value. The city’s population is less than one tenth that of New York, yet the San Francisco planning department processes three times more applications than Gotham’s planning commission. That’s because public review — with generous opportunities to appeal — is a cherished sport here. For example, any exterior building alteration to a structure more than 50 years old requires historic review by the city — a process that can easily take a year. Environmental review of a proposal to install bicycle lanes took three years. When a proposal for a cluster of office and residential towers downtown—without any residential displacement and with 40 percent of the housing to be permanently affordable — came before the planning commission recently, protesters chanting “genocide” shut the hearing down.

San Franciscans have easy access to the ballot by petition. In November, residents voted on five initiatives addressing the changing city, including Airbnb regulation, protections for “legacy” shops, and an 18-month shut down of private housing development in the Mission District. This love of process over action shows just how intractable the city’s growing pains are. The city’s political leaders have few real solutions to San Francisco’s real problems, so instead we San Franciscans lash out at symbols: tech workers and the buses that take them to their jobs; chain stores; and fancy new restaurants. By these lights, New York seems more comfortable as a city of ambition. The idea of San Francisco as a place that attracts young people interested in working hard and making money is fairly new. Even in the Gold Rush days, one sought one’s fortune scattered by a streambed, not in the city. In San Francisco, hustle is unbecoming.

New York and San Francisco are both paying the price of gentrification and revival. People get pushed out, or crowded, or have long commutes. But the two cities are different in key ways. In San Francisco, if you want a walkable neighborhood with cafes and bakeries and the amenities that Jane Jacobs championed, you have few choices. San Francisco doesn’t have the equivalent of a Cobble Hill, a Jackson Heights, or a Hoboken, and lacks the reliable, regional public transit system that would make longer commutes bearable. The San Francisco Metro and the regional BART system combined have just 104 miles of track. New York’s subways run 842 miles, not to mention the PATH system, Metro North, New Jersey Transit, and Long Island Railroad that funnel workers into and out of the central city. While San Francisco is a cultural and economic heavyweight, it’s a relatively small city: 850,000 residents within 49 square miles, with water on three sides. Here, the shifts seem tectonic. They feel like an earthquake.

Plenty of solutions for San Francisco’s planning gridlock spring to mind. The challenges are not technical; they are merely a matter of political will. Most development projects should go forward if they comply with planning codes. The arduous, costly, and risky review and appeals processes should be streamlined. The California Environmental Quality Act should be amended so that it encourages smart growth rather than sprawl. Small infill projects should be exempted. But I’m not holding my breath for any of this. What is needed is a radical change in the local culture. San Francisco needs to learn to embrace change without fear and give up its love affair with process.

BART’s damage-control scramble on decoy cameras

As reported by the San Francisco Chronicle:

BART didn’t waste time announcing it would replace scores of dummy cameras on its trains with real ones — and with good reason.

The Chronicle report that embarrassed BART by revealing the decoy cameras hit just as the transit agency was putting pollsters into the field to gauge public support for a planned $3 billion bond measure to improve service and trains.

“It’s damage control,” said state Sen. Steve Glazer, D-Orinda, an outspoken critic of BART spending. “They have to convince the public that everything is going well when they go to the ballot.”

Past polling has shown a majority of voters in San Francisco, Alameda and Contra Costa counties would be willing to back higher sales or property taxes to pay for BART improvements. But the support hovers just over the two-thirds threshold needed for passage.

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