Monday, November 3, 2014

Nov 2014 election: San Francisco ballot measures


San Francisco virtually always has a complicated ballot on election day. This year holds its own in that regard, with 12 ballot measures as well as local offices. Here's some of my picks for the Tue election.

Here's a guide to San Francisco ballot measures.

District 8 Supervisor

Scott Weiner's my choice. He's had an excellent record so far, including solid positions on transportation.

Proposition A

This is a bond to fund transportation costs in San Francisco, including road repair. Well, for one thing we just recently passed a bond to fund road repair. against my support. Funding ongoing repairs with debt is a bad idea because it incurs interest on top of principle costs, and since paving the roads is a steady expense, there's no reason it shouldn't be allocated out of the annual budget. The main reason, though, I'm against this is that Mayor Lee recently ended sunday street parking metering (every other day is metered). This was going to funding MUNI, so in effect the MUNI component of this bond is going for free parking, not MUNI. I vote no until Sunday parking fees are re-instituted. Ed Lee further killed a restoration of the vehicle license fee in San Francisco. There's no reason to make it cheap to own a car in San Francisco, and giving away parking is bad in every way.


Proposition B

This is Scott Weiner's proposal that MUNI funding be proportional to population.

I have mixed feelings about MUNI because I think it is largely a money pit. On the other hand, I support robust public transit. Early in San Francisco's history, pre-1906, public transit was largely a free-enterprise deal, with private companies providing street car service, which was generally excellent. Now transit is provided publicly, and by any reasonable estimate, it's both terrible in quality and high in cost. I personally get very little out of MUNI service, as I avoid it if there's any other reasonable alternative. And in the free market, alternatives have emerged where they've been able to given the highly regulated market of transportation services. For example, Uber and Lyft and ZipCar are all services which have been enabled by the internet. These are small vehicle services: for large vehicles there's the tech shuttles and IT buses which serve commuters. MUNI, in contrast, is amazingly inefficient, with convoluted routes and stop schedules overburdened by NIMBY "every stop is sacred" politics because if you eliminate even one stop, despite the availability of stops one short block both up and down the street, then some grandma with her walker is going to have a hard time getting to the bus. So the service becomes virtually useless.

So it's chicken and egg. Do you throw more money at the problem, since without money it won't improve? Or do you embrace the far more efficient free-enterprise solutions?

With this amendment MUNI's budget will go to $256 million by 2015, up from $245. This is close to $300/person, or $1/day/person in the city.

So I'm on the fence here. Honestly I can't see more money making any difference to MUNI. I'd much rather see money go instead, for example, to the bike share program which is currently crippled by lack of scale. I really need to see a sign MUNI is going to lift itself from the present morass. The contrast to what I saw in Basel recently couldn't be more striking, and it wasn't just a budget issue.

I'll vote no.


Proposition C

This is to continue funding children's services for the next 25 years, since the similar proposition funding the past 25 years is expiring. The definition of "children" for this purpose is being extended from 18 to 24 years old.

With a 25 year record to stand on, you'd think there'd be more facts available in the campaign material about how effective the last proposition was. Of course educating children is important, but I don't see where these funds are going. Despite this, however, I can't find anyone except Starchild making an argument against, and Starchild's main argument is you can't trust government generally and that the extension to age 24 is unjustified. These are valid points, of course, but I'll vote yes. This is the first ballot measured I've considered so far, state or local, where I'll vote yes.


Proposition D

I have no idea why this is on the ballot and wasn't resolved directly by the Board of Supervisors. Do Board of Redevelopment members deserve retirement benefits? I don't know. I'll vote no.


Proposition E

Tax on sugar-sweetened beverages. Yes, yes, yes, and yes.

This bill isn't perfect but few bills ever are. A similar tax has been highly effective in Mexico City, and the campaigning against this one has been misleading and cynical. Proposition E is a resounding yes.


Proposition F

This is a proposed increase in the height limit for development in the Pier 70 region of Bayview-Hunters Point. Obviously with an increasing Bay are population and a drive towards more centralized, less sprawl-oriented housing model, this proposal makes a lot of sense, as well as providing needed economic stimulus to a traditionally undesirable, crime-intensive area of the city. The list of supporters is impressive. Opposition is dominated by the anti-density, pro-parking crowd. I vote yes.


Proposition G

This would provide a surcharge on the transfer taxes paid on certain multi-unit buildings sold within 5 years of prior purchase. It's designed to discourage "flipping", which is perceived to be a negative influence on the housing market. But often "flipping" means buildings in poor condition are improved, then sold for a profit, which improves the general quality of the housing stock in San Francisco, as well as the general quality and attractiveness of the neighborhoods in which the buildings belong. And the amount of these surcharges is extraordinarily high -- over 20% in some cases. What's the economic effect of this? Suppose I have a near-vacant building for 3 years and I want out for whatever reason. Should I sell it to someone willing to make a long-term investment in the building, increasing the benefit to the housing market? No -- I'll sit on it for 2 years until I'm clear of the surcharge period, so it sits underutilized during that period assuming I lack the resources to properly renovate it. Any abrupt tax like this is distortionary, and while I support an incentive towards longer-term ownership, as this provides more stability, I fear that this one goes too far into the zone of stifling renovation. I vote no.


Proposition H

This would require certain fields in Golden Gate Park be kept natural grass without artificial lighting. This sounds good in principle but the reality is that the net benefit may be higher with an artificial field, and artificial lighting vastly increases the time window during fall and winter when the parks can be used. So I'm voting against this one. In any case the argument that grass fields are environmentally friendly, with their heavy requirement for water and fertilizer not to mention gas-powered mowers, is extremely simple-minded.


Proposition I

This would facilitate the city's ability to renovate fields, including the use of artificial turf. It's a direct contrast to H. I vote yes. It is not a bond nor does it directly increase taxes or spending.


Proposition J

This would increase the minimum wage in San Francisco to $15/hour. Obviously this provides a barrier to hiring entry-level workers. At some point the decision is made that I will not hire someone rather than hire them because the cost of hiring is increased. Minimum wages and their impact on hiring and the economy has been a favorite subject for economic debate for many decades. If the price competition is primarily from local businesses, for example a coffee house, and if demand is relatively inelastic, for example people are addicted to coffee and will not switch to making their own, then businesses will not appreciably suffer by paying their employees more and passing on the cost. It can be argued that the free market has resulted in the cost of labor being higher than this minimum wage anyway, and if that's the case, this isn't needed. I'm a bit on the fence on this, so will vote no.


Proposition K

Prop K will make it city policy to increase housing supply, including "affordable housing". This is a complex subject, including the effectiveness of "affordable housing" policies, but I in general support more, denser housing, so I'll support this. Really it doesn't do anything other than state a priority.


Proposition L

How many times can I say no? This is the initiative to reinforce the emphasis on private automobiles for transportation policy, calling it "balance". Prop L would be a disaster. It's the antithesis of the "transit first" policy which at least nominally has set San Francisco apart from other West Coast cities since the 1970's. Every step of the way toward support of pedestrian-cycling-transit friendliness versus parking-and-driving focus has been fought. If you vote for no other reason, if you vote on no other measures, go to the polls a and vote against Proposition L.



I'm friendlier to the San Francisco propositions than I was to the state propositions. I was against all of those except for 47. Here, I'm for C, E, F, I, and K (5) while I'm against A, B, D, G, H, J, and especially L (7). I'm big pro-E and big anti-L. San Francisco Bike Coalition is for A and B: they're for all propositions spending more on transportation. So I disagree with them there. The one I'm closest to supporting which I am against is J. But when I'm not sure I tend to vote no, unless the opinion for is overwhelming.



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