Political actors on every side of the city of San Diego sales tax debate are talking about what the $103 million a year from a half-cent increase would pay for.

Council President Ben Hueso, who proposed the November ballot measure, says it will sustain police and fire services — which took on greater significance following the Fire Department’s slow response to the choking death of a two-year-old on Tuesday. Councilman Carl DeMaio says it will pay for employee pensions. Councilwoman Donna Frye is concerned that the tax increase will be tied to paying for the new $294 million Civic Center, a project already appearing on the November ballot. The proposed ballot measure itself says the tax increase will pay for “essential city services.” There’s even been a suggestion that a sales tax increase could pay to expand the city’s Convention Center.

Everyone is right and everyone is wrong.

If voters approve the sales tax measure as proposed, the money raised simply would flow into the city’s day-to-day operating budget, or general fund. That means the money could be used for everything the city’s general fund pays for including police and fire services, employee pensions and the new Civic Center as it’s currently planned. Certain departments, such as water and sewer, are excluded from the general fund and wouldn’t get any of the money.

Why don’t backers of the increased sales tax earmark the money to police and fire, insulating the money from charges that it would just go into the pension black hole or pay for a new home for city bureaucrats?

State law says that if sales tax ballot measures are dedicated to a certain source, voters must approve them by a two-thirds margin. As proposed, backers are seeking a general sales tax increase which only requires a majority of voters to vote yes.

So in essence those pushing a sales tax ballot measure are taking a calculated risk. They believe it would be harder to get two-thirds of city voters to support a sales tax increase dedicated specifically for say, public safety, than to get the majority of city voters to back a sales tax increase that would pay for anything the general fund supports. Like, for example, City Council members’ own salaries.

Should City Council put the tax increase on the ballot next week, expect to see a ton of arguments about where the money is going. Now you know: anywhere.


Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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