When producer Martin Gabel attended the initial rehearsal of the play The Assassin, he spotted an actress who was “gesticulating wildly instead of remaining motionless.” Irritated, Gabel told her “Don’t just do something — stand there.”
So we are told in a 1945 article by Leonard Lyons. Last month, San Francisco voters heeded Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff’s demand that they follow the traditional form of that line and “don’t just stand there — do something.” Benioff was talking (and tweeting) about supporting Proposition C, which would tax large businesses of many types to raise about $300 million a year for additional spending on homeless services. Opponents raised a number of concerns, such as a lack of specificity about how the money would be spent, the lack of transparency or effectiveness about the hundreds of millions of dollars the city already spends on the homeless each year, and that businesses just might find other cities in which to ply their trades without being targeted with new taxes every time voters get upset at something.
Proponents saw it differently. I recently spoke with David Campos, former supervisor and current head of the Democratic County Central Committee, about the homeless tax proposition, which he said “was ultimately about should the wealthiest city in the country turn its back on the homeless? . . . I don’t understand why [Mayor London Breed] came out against it, because what it does is it actually provided the mayor the funding needed to address a lot of the issues around homelessness that we’re not able to address, specifically the issue of housing and services.”
In particular, he said it gives the city funding to do more than just house people in temporary shelters; the city can build that supportive housing that is permanent and includes services for the tenants who might be struggling with addictions or mental health issues. He notes the irony that he is helping just that become a reality down in Santa Clara, where he is a deputy county executive.
BUT IS IT LEGAL?
The threat of a lawsuit challenging the legality of the proposition’s implementation is an echo of a lawsuit against the city over another tax-the-businesses measure approved by city voters back in June of this year. That earlier measure increased taxes on businesses to provide money for childcare and early education programs; the lawsuit charges that taxes can’t be raised without a two-thirds majority vote. Proposition C garnered 61 percent of the votes, a bit shy of two-thirds. There is disagreement about whether that vote requirement only applies to legislators or also to the public in referendums. Judges will have to determine that.
Following November’s election, I hosted a political roundtable in which I asked CBS Bay Area legal and political reporter Melissa Caen — who is also a lawyer— about Proposition C, and she said “There’s some legal issues here. It was passed with a majority . . . but not a supermajority. There’s a question about [whether] you can collect the tax but can you actually spend the tax, because there wasn’t a supermajority?” So far, City Controller Ben Rosenfield has said the tax can be collected but the city won’t be able to spend it until the legal issue is resolved. After all, if a judge ultimately rules for the plaintiffs, then the city would have to pay back that money — and then whose ox is gored?
“The challenge with Prop C is that there are forces that are trying to keep it from being enforced,” Campos said. He hopes that Breed will implement it right away; if not, the supervisors should step in and make sure it happens. He repeatedly said it was about making sure that “the will of the voters is respected, and this bogus idea of a lawsuit — we’re going to have to fight that.” I didn’t endear myself to Campos or his fans in the audience when I mentioned that the will of voters had done other things they might not agree with, such as elect Donald Trump (with an assist from the Electoral College).
As for how Breed will spend the money, he said, “You’re the mayor; you’re the chief executive. Make it right. Make sure the people working for you are doing what they are supposed to do.”
Caen notes that an advisory council will actually dole out the cash. Its seven members will be appointed by Mayor Breed, the Board of Supervisors, and other city leaders. But an influx of new dollars doesn’t mean that the will of the voters will actually happen; it might even result in the city just doing nothing.
“Right now we’re spending like $300 million a year on homeless services,” said Caen. “Are we just going to move that over and pay for something else and bring this on in and end up in a net-similar situation, as opposed to putting it on top of what we already spend — which I think is the intent? But as is often the case — anyone who watches politics, you know — as soon as you raise taxes over here for something, they’re just going to suck that [previously allocated] money over and pay for something else that’s less popular. So you could end up back at zero even though we’ve got this new tax money coming in.”