In case there was any confusion, San Diego City Attorney Jan Goldsmith decided to use capital letters.

“To be clear, this IS a tax,” Goldsmith wrote recently about the financial plan to expand the city’s Convention Center.

The Convention Center expansion presents a delicious irony about the San Diego mayoral candidates’ position on tax increases. Financing the project will take a tax increase, one expected to raise at least $1 billion over the next three decades.

But the three major Republicans in the race, City Councilman Carl DeMaio, District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis and Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher, all support the Convention Center tax hike. They argue the expansion will bring jobs and economic development. But in just about every other circumstance, the trio trips over each other to argue they’re the most virulently anti-tax candidate.

Meantime, Congressman Bob Filner, the lone big name Democrat, opposes the Convention Center tax increase. But he’s the only one to say he might consider a general tax hike during his mayoral tenure.

The politics of taxes takes on special importance in a famously anti-tax city like San Diego. Seven years ago, current Mayor Jerry Sanders was forced into a no-tax pledge on the campaign trail. Sanders saw the most savage political beat down of his career when he reversed course and backed a sales tax hike in 2010. It lost 62 percent to 38 percent.

Here’s a breakdown of each major candidate’s position on taxes:

City Councilman Carl DeMaio

DeMaio has made opposing tax, fee, rate and other increases to the city treasury his raison d’être.

He was the primary antagonist to Sanders during the failed 2010 Proposition D sales tax campaign. He gained international attention for deriding a proposal to charge residents to register their cats as a “cat tax.” DeMaio brought his Bengal cat, Ace, as a prop to a press conference on the issue.

Since DeMaio was elected in 2008, he’s been against a 6.4 percent water rate hike, ending a city subsidy for parking scofflaws and a nickel increase to library fines. This week, the state’s most well-known anti-tax organization endorsed his candidacy.

“Your next mayor needs to have a proven track record of fighting against these reckless tax increases,” DeMaio said.

But DeMaio does support the Convention Center expansion and the tax hike proposed to finance it. He uses the same argument his fellow Republicans make. The tax increase is OK because city hoteliers will benefit from the expansion and they get to vote on it.

“The individuals that are affected by this increase will be voting,” DeMaio said.

This answer ignores what the hotel industry has made clear: San Diego visitors will be paying for the tax increase, not the hotels. DeMaio said the higher tax rates will force hotels to keep their own prices competitive.

Like his fellow Republican candidates, DeMaio argues that the Convention Center expansion will bring thousands of jobs for San Diegans and millions in new revenues to the budget.

District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis

Dumanis’ tax stance is notable as much for what she won’t talk about as what she does.

Dumanis has refused to answer questions about her 2010 vote on Prop. D. She has said her vote was “personal.”

Her Republican opponents have pummeled her for this stance and her support of state tax extensions promoted by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in spring 2009. Dumanis said she backed that deal because of the threat to law enforcement funding. Other major public safety officials and organizations, she said, supported it, too.

“All of us have to look out for the public safety of our communities,” Dumanis said. “It was going to cripple us.”

But during the mayoral campaign, she’s come out against every tax hike she can find. She sent out press releases opposing some discussions to change California’s landmark Proposition 13 property tax restrictions and a school parcel tax. She’s also opposed to Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposal to raise taxes for education even though public schools are a pet issue for her.

“What’s important is not what my personal positions were at that time, what is important is that I have stated that I will not support a tax to bail out the city,” she said.

Dumanis does back the Convention Center tax. She said that since hoteliers will profit from an expansion, it’s appropriate for them to decide if taxes are raised, and the economic development makes the expansion worth the cost.

Congressman Bob Filner

Filner, the race’s only Democrat, also is the only candidate not to rule out a general tax increase at some point while in office. He has said he doesn’t support a tax hike immediately. But he could ask voters to approve one once his administration has earned San Diegans’ trust, he added.

“As a city we have demanded things for our quality of life, and have said no but we’re not going to pay any taxes,” Filner said at a mayoral forum this month. “You cannot continue forever like that.”

Filner said a tax increase could help reduce the city’s massive infrastructure repair backlog.

The congressman opposes the planned hotelier vote on the Convention Center tax. He said the public should be the ones to decide if the city should raise visitor taxes.

Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher

As he does on many issues, Fletcher walks a thin line on taxes.

Here he is on general tax increases at a mayoral forum this month: “I’m not going to support a tax increase at the beginning of my tenure as mayor. I’m not going to support it at the middle of my tenure as mayor. I’m not going to support it at the end of my tenure as mayor.”

Here he is on why he supports allowing hoteliers to increase visitor taxes to expand the Convention Center at a mayoral forum in January: “If a group of people want to come together and say, ‘We’re going to see tremendous benefit from something and we want to contribute to help support it,’ I think that’s appropriate.”

Fletcher’s most high-profile position on taxes came as part of his day job. Last fall, Fletcher was one of two Republicans in the state Assembly to support a tax plan developed by Brown, a Democrat.

The plan would have ended a tax break for big out-of-state businesses and funneled $1.1 billion in new revenues toward increasing individual income tax deductions and lowering the tax rate for some in-state corporations.

But the tax proposal died after failing to garner Republican support in the state Senate amid opposition from one of California’s most significant anti-tax lobbyists.

DeMaio hit Fletcher for supporting the governor’s tax plan at a mayoral forum last month. Fletcher responded by saying his Republican colleagues liked the deal, but decided not to vote for it for political reasons.

“What we’ve negotiated through difficult and hard negotiations was getting Jerry Brown to agree in a budget deficit to permanently cut taxes on California small businesses,” he said.

The Bottom Line

Tax increases remain one of the third-rail issues in San Diego politics. None of the candidates back general tax hikes at this time, though Filner is open to one down the line. But on at least one issue, the three Republicans in the race believe a tax increase is OK. All three support increasing hotel-room taxes to expand the Convention Center without a public vote.

Liam Dillon is a news reporter for voiceofsandiego.org. He covers San Diego City Hall, the 2012 mayor’s race and big building projects. What should he write about next?

Please contact him directly at liam.dillon@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5663.

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Liam Dillon

Liam Dillon was formerly a senior reporter and assistant editor for Voice of San Diego. He led VOSD’s investigations and wrote about how regular people...

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