The other day, when I proclaimed this to be the weirdest summer in San Diego politics, Andrew Donohue reminded me of my stories from 2004. A city roiled by scandal, facing a polarizing race for mayor, found itself dealing with the sudden death of a City Council member and the unfortunate but inevitable politics that must follow such a loss.

And as the summer ended, a popular city councilwoman, Donna Frye, decided the mayor’s race wasn’t interesting enough and she began one of the most successful write-in campaigns ever.

Yes, that was an interesting summer. (It was also during that time when a longtime columnist and editor for the Union-Tribune was unceremoniously fired and he hatched plans to eventually form a new, online news service:

There was another lesson that summer, though, that applies to this one.

Even though the city, like all other communities, was experiencing a property tax boom and a thriving economy, it was struggling. So, the firefighters union joined with the police officers union, which joined with the hotel industry, which joined with the arts community and outlined an increase to the city’s hotel-room tax.

They divvied up the proceeds for the tax and so, because the money would be dedicated to specific causes, they had to persuade more than two-thirds of voters to support it.

Since the tax increase had so many supporter (because so many people and groups benefited from it) it had a shot. They came very close, but it ultimately failed.

It lacked the support of the mayor, who was campaigning against two Republicans, and the support of Councilwoman Donna Frye.

As the summer wore on, and things got worse, Frye hatched a plan to raise the hotel-room tax again, but this time without describing where the money would go or what it would pay for. Because of state law, this blank check is actually easier to pass — requiring only 50 percent of voters, plus one — to be approved.

Very few groups supported the tax. The mayor did not.

It came close, but ultimately failed to reach even the lower threshold.

The lesson about tax increases in San Diego comes in two parts:

  • Dedication: More than 50 percent of voters might support a new tax increase if they know where the money is headed. And they can be persuaded by groups willing to spend on, and work on behalf of, a campaign. These groups are more likely to do this if they are beneficiaries of the revenue. The problem is, they need two-thirds of the vote so getting more than half isn’t going to work.
  • Get the Mayor: The mayor’s support will not win the vote. But his opposition can ensure that key allies stay away and that it doesn’t get the extra push it would need.
  • Get Someone: If you don’t have the mayor, or even if you do, you can’t go it alone. If the only people who support the tax are city workers and a bare majority of the City Council, it will probably get pulverized.

There seems to be a group of City Council members — Todd Gloria, Marti Emerald and Ben Hueso — who believe that the city should just put a new sales tax hike on the ballot. The city needs money, and services will continue to dwindle without it. They have been led to believe, apparently, by polling that this has a chance of passing. This is polling that was done before the anti-tax crowd really kicked into gear.

The truth is that even if you believe that City Hall has cut to the bone and employees have given up all they can in the short term and all we can do now is to pay a higher sales tax, you still have to support more reforms.

Why? Because unless you recruit a conservative to stand with you, history would suggest that it will fail.

So supporting a tax hike that doesn’t have any support from the conservative side is basically like deciding you don’t want a tax hike.

Gloria absurdly included Frye the other day in a tweet where he said that she and the others who voted against putting the tax on the ballot without any reform supported cutting fire stations and police.

Frye has been around longer and she knew that the opposite was true. The city can’t hike taxes unless it learns why it failed to do so in the past.

Residents of this city have legitimate reasons to be frustrated with City Hall and the way it has handled public money. If you want to bring more revenue into the city, you’re going to have to take them seriously.


Dagny Salas

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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