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I have to admit, I wasn’t giving the “Citizen’s Fiscal Sustainability Task Force” (hereafter, the “Chamber”) enough credit. When they came forward with their plan to makeover Prop. D, I mocked it as a bit of self-flattering, kiss-the-ring theater. The changes seemed to do very little, but it was nevertheless very important that Sanders and Co. praise the contribution without which the Chamber simply could not endorse the slightly different original proposition.

While there’s some truth to that reading, I didn’t appreciate the significance of the tweaks at first. Remember the context. Sanders’ administration needs this tax money to avoid ending under the shadow of deep service cuts, bankruptcy or an asset fire-sale. Here are the Chamber’s changes:

1) Sets a floor of $73M annually which the reforms must save in order to trigger the sales tax (in addition to the proposition’s other conditions).

The $73M is arbitrary, but also in the range suggested by Jay Goldstone as likely (when he’s not making official estimates designed for maximum CYA). So we could be forgiven for considering this grandstanding on the part of the Chamber.

But there is more to it. Savings in that range will fully depend on cuts to retiree health care or on managed competition. The other reforms available just haven’t got enough juice. Now, the point of managed competition is to compare city and private bids and hope for a better private offer. But because public safety — more than half of the general fund budget — is off of the table to begin with, the city is unlikely to find the real budgetary bargains that it needs to come up with tens of millions.

For Sanders, that money simply must be found. So he may be unable to refuse any offer that’s cheaper in the immediate-term, whether there is confidence in the parity of service or the trustworthiness of the private bidder or not. Sounds like a sensible incentive to place on management to me, Chamber.

If big managed competition savings don’t materialize, that leaves retiree health care. And so, to avoid Sanders’ and the city’s collapse, retiree health care will be slashed to the bone. Is it in the city’s broader best interest to do that? Is that what our citizens want? Doesn’t matter. The Chamber has spoken.

2) Sets a limit of $20M per year of new tax revenue (of $102M estimated) that may go to restoring services.

That’s right, easy there San Diego on restoring that fire protection, fleet maintenance, library service, parks and police support. It’s austerity for you. Your money, such as it was, is for paying down debt and building reserves. (Did no one tell these folks that those International Monetary Fund policies in the 90s were a disaster and have been completely discredited?) Do they think it makes sense for their own businesses to take that decision making out of the hands of management? Yes, 20 percent of new revenue you can use however best improves your business, the rest is spoken for. Good Father Chamber knows best.

3) A variation on number 2, directs 50 percent or more of future surpluses to debt reduction, reserves, infrastructure or one-time expenditures. Putting aside the paternalism and managerial hand-tying, this is probably loosey-goosey enough to be counted as more faux-serious platitude than anything else. Sure am glad these wise folks are here to help!

So, there we have it. Without a mix of ill-considered outsourcing, dumping retirees on Medi-Cal, and paternalistic chastisement, the Chamber simply cannot endorse Prop. D.

Funny though, that for all their tweedy advice about what to do with $20M where needed public services are concerned, not a word about the city’s long running habit for corporate welfare, not a word about any of the truly big dollar decisions the city faces: the convention center ($1B), a football stadium ($800M), a new City Hall ($500M), or the future of its cash happy CCDC, just to name a few.

I guess the administration can be trusted where those small matters are concerned.

Jeffrey Davis lives in San Diego.

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