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Monday, February 06, 2006 | City Councilmen Jim Madaffer and Scott Peters will be making an announcement today that they are going to try to prohibit smoking on the city of San Diego’s public beaches and parks.

Nice.

There are few things more annoying than running your hands through the sand at the beach and coming up with somebody’s ugly, stained little butt.

I used to be a smoker. And I remember enjoying cigarettes at the beach. I remember that was nice.

But I’ve also lived in places in this country where local factories made the air stink. And I remember how helpless it feels to know that you can’t do anything to avoid that but move. And I wonder if some people feel that way about inhaling other people’s smoke when they relax on the beach, and I wonder if banning that practice is, indeed, a good idea.

There is of course, one perpetual problem with these sorts of initiatives. How do you enforce it? Enforcing it costs money. And it’s not as if our police officers, their ranks stretched thin, have idle time available to roam the beaches. Our lifeguards probably have better things to do, as well. The realities of our city’s budget crisis mean that banning smoking on beaches – if logical – is a luxury better enjoyed when we aren’t closing swimming pools and keeping our fire department in a perpetual state of neglect.

Of course, that objection has its limitations. There are people on the city’s payroll who could be doing better things with their time: the parking-enforcement officers. Don’t tell me that the kinds of tickets they are writing now constitute a vital service to the city.

But even if we set them loose on the city’s beaches to prosecute smokers, would the new ban on smoking at beaches be more effective at alleviating our complaints about the practice than, say, simple enforcement of anti-littering laws?

It’ll be an interesting discussion. I’ll probably come down on the side of the “we-have-better-things-to-do” camp but I’ll listen.

That’s not all, though, the City Council’s Tobacco Week has a lot more to it than a proposed ban on smoking at the beach.

The council is set to consider a proposal Monday to turn tobacco into pensions.

Here’s how it goes: In 1998, four cigarette manufacturers agreed to settle a massive lawsuit filed against them by 46 states. California gets a cut of that money. San Diego gets a cut of that.

San Diego officials believe that their cut of the tobacco money will be $10.3 million this year and will go up each year after that by about 2 percent. So the mayor proposed, just like what was envisioned by his predecessor, that the city offer to “sell” that revenue to Wall Street.

In other words, the mayor wants us to ask a bunch of rich people to give us a $100 million check right now. In exchange, those investors lay claim on that tobacco money – or at least $10.3 million of it every year for the next 16 years.

Do the math. We’re going to pay $165 million over the next 16 years to get $100 million now.

And what happens to that $100 million we get now? It goes into the employee pension fund, changing a deficit in the retirement system that many say is $2 billion to, let’s see, $1.9 billion? As part of this deal, the city also has to set up a special structure to ensure that if it declares bankruptcy before it’s made all the payments it promised these investors, it will continue to make the payments. And we’re warned in the city’s proposal that the tobacco companies may go broke (especially if cities clamp down on smoking more than they already have, like, say, on the beach). If the tobacco companies do go broke – and their credit ratings are sinking – the city will still have to pay off its lenders.

Awesome.

The best part of this whole deal is that while it looks like a proposal – something the City Council will “consider” – there is no real decision being made Monday. The city has already committed to do it, or something very much like it, by the end of June. It has made the promise to the labor unions of city employees.

The tobacco money was an unexpected revenue source for the city that has, until now, been used to supplement the city’s struggling general fund – the same general fund that can’t right now provide for what the city needs in firefighters, police and infrastructure improvements. Take $10.3 million a year more away and it’ll be worse.

The mayor and council will argue that they need to get money into the pension system and this is one way to do it.

I agree. The city needs to get money into its pension fund.

So it should give the pension system money. It should raise taxes, sell land, everything. If it can’t – or its residents are unwilling to do all that – than let’s call a spade a spade: The city is broke.

Ahh, but borrowing is an option, they’ll say. The city’s financial wizards can most assuredly provide a mathematical proof to me that if they get the $100 million and put it in the pension fund, the wizards will be able to make more money on it through shrewd investing than the $65 million the city will lose in interest payments to the rich guys over the 16 years.

But that’s like me telling my wife that, “Umm, remember that unexpected raise I got a few years back? I’m going to give it up for the next 16 years in exchange for a check for $100,000.” When she asks why, I’ll tell her I plan to invest that $100,000 in the stock market and earn enough in the process to pay off part of my massive credit card debt. I would, of course, tell her that I’m an amazing investor and I can show her the mathematical proof that my plan will pay off.

And then she tells me I’m crazy – that I might not make as high of a salary as I think I will, and that even if I do, the stock market might go down and I might lose all that I borrow – I’ll tell her, “Sorry, babe, it’s too late.”

Because I already promised I would do it.

Scott Lewis oversees Voice‘s commentary section. Please contact him directly at

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