Politics Report: MTS May Drop Push for Transit Tax - Voice of San Diego

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Politics Report: MTS May Drop Push for Transit Tax

An MTS trolley makes its way through downtown San Diego. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

The coronavirus could soon claim its first political life in San Diego.

The Metropolitan Transit System will discuss Thursday whether to move forward with its plan to put a measure to expand transit with a tax increase on the November ballot, known as ElevateSD.

Rob Schupp, an MTS spokesman, said the agency’s board will discuss both the measure’s future and the financial impact COVID-19 is having on the agency.

“Budget will be a big item,” he said. “There will also be a discussion on the future of Elevate.”

It would now qualify as a surprise if the measure survives. It’s now widely expected, including among those close to MTS leadership, that the board won’t move forward with the measure to raise sales taxes to increase bus and trolley frequencies and build new routes, including a trolley connection to the airport. County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher, who was expected to lead the campaign to pass the measure, has now taken a lead role in the county’s response to the COVID-19 public health crisis.

MTS ridership plummeted 70 percent since Gov. Gavin Newsom instituted a stay-at-home order. MTS maintained service levels for weeks, but will begin scaled-back service on Monday.

The agency had been working on the 2020 ballot measure since 2018, when then-Board Chair Georgette Gómez spearheaded the effort after a state law made it possible for MTS to levy taxes. MTS held dozens of outreach meetings with transit users, conducted rounds of polling and focus grouping, built revenue projections and compiled it into potential spending plans for the measure. A new state law passed by Assemblyman Todd Gloria last year also would have let the agency propose the measure for only a portion of its jurisdiction, boosting its chances of getting two-thirds voter approval.

At the same time, the agency had taken a series of steps to boost ridership, and they appeared to be working. Ridership increased from a year earlier in eight straight months last year.

“The history is the only times you can get a two-thirds vote for a transportation measure is the confluence of a presidential election and a good economy, and it doesn’t look like we’ll be in a good economic place in November, so I think it’ll be really challenging to move forward with a transit measure in November,” said La Mesa Councilman Colin Parent, who runs the transit advocacy group Circulate San Diego. “I have every reason to believe that’s not where voters heads will be in November.”

Long term, Parent said one reason for optimism is the possibility that state law could change in the next three to five years to allow tax increases for transit to seek only a 55 percent threshold, or even a simply majority.

San Diego transit goes to Washington: MTS and the North County Transit District are also seeking money from the federal government made available in the congressional relief package known as the CARES Act.

SANDAG submitted grant applications to the federal government on behalf of both MTS and NCTD for about $316 million, with roughly two-thirds of it potentially headed to MTS.

Schupp said it’s too early to say how much damage the crisis has done to MTS’s budget, or how much the roughly $220 million would help.

“We’re working with SANDAG economists to predict revenue shortfalls due to lower sales tax,” he said. “Ridership is off 70 percent. Who knows how long it’s going to take to recover from that. The $220 million is of course going to help. But will it be enough? Only time will tell.”

At its last meeting, MTS’s Budget Development Committee discussed adopting a budget that had been created prior to the COVID-19 hit.

“That would make it easy to quantify the impacts as went along rather than guess at revenue losses and additional expenses,” Schupp wrote in an email.

The committee, though, asked staff to pull together alternatives that consider the effect of the virus, and any revenue bump from CARES Act funds, which will go to the board on Thursday.

Both Mayoral Campaigns Have Their Opponent Right Where They Want Them

Assemblyman Todd Gloria and San Diego Councilwoman Barbara Bry / Photos by Dustin Michelson and Vito Di Stefano

The campaign strategists for both Assemblyman Todd Gloria and Councilwoman Barbara Bry made their case this week for why everything in the mayoral race is shaping up just as they hoped.

Jennifer Tierney, in a memo dated April 3, referred to Gloria as the “overwhelming favorite” in the race, arguing that “nearly every factor in this race gives him an advantage.”

Bry, Tierney argued, has two problems. She doesn’t have a “real base,” so risks losing the voters she has any time she attempts to attract new ones. “There is no evidence to suggest that Bry bests Gloria in any group of voters across the political spectrum,” she wrote.

The problem with Tierney’s memo comes when you see what she’s relying on to claim Gloria leads Bry not just with Democrats and independent voters, but even Republicans.

“In the last Survey USA poll conducted without Sherman in the race (September 2019), Gloria beat Bry with Republicans, 19 to 17. Our internal polling indicates similar numbers. Becoming the de facto Republican in this race is a path that is fraught with peril for Bry,” the memo says.

We’d love to see the details on the campaign’s internal polling, but Tierney instead relied on numbers from a public SurveyUSA poll, which local politicos tend to make sport of disregarding. In this case, it’s a seven-month-old poll of 550 likely voters for an election that already took place and which predated a historic pandemic and ensuing economic crisis. Gloria’s advantage among GOP voters in that poll translates to him receiving support from 28 Republicans, compared to 25 Republicans who said they liked Bry, out of the 148 Republicans surveyed.

All that said, Tierney’s point that there’s no evidence to suggest Bry has a specific advantage holds up. The most compelling information in the memo is from the actual March election results, where she points out that Gloria won every community in Republican Councilman Scott Sherman’s Council district, along with nine of the 10 city’s 10 community’s with the highest Republican registration and 19 of the top 20, along with winning 75 percent of precincts north of I-8 and 96 percent of those south of I-8, giving him 85 percent of precincts citywide.

The pro-Bry take: Bry’s chief consultant, Tom Shepard, sent a campaign email to supporters this week praising an article from the Union-Tribune that noted in the 10 mayoral runoffs San Diego has held, the candidate who finished in second in the primary won the runoff half the time.

Indeed, Shepard was a consultant in all five of those second-to-first finishes, he wrote to Bry supporters.

“Barbara entered this race with far lower name identification than Todd Gloria, but we observed during the campaign that the more voters got to know Barbara, the more they liked her,” Shepard wrote. And after getting into the race with name ID north of 50 percent, Gloria took only 41 percent of the March vote, Shepard wrote.

“It appears that the more voters know about Todd, the more they like other candidates,” he wrote. “History, logic, and experience suggest that in the runoff Barbara will receive the lion’s share of primary voters who didn’t support either of the top two finishers.”

The part that’s left unsaid here, though, is that Bry needs the lion’s share of primary voters who didn’t support Gloria or Bry, and even if she gets it, it still might not be enough.

Partly, that’s because Gloria was so far ahead of Bry in the primary. If they were just fighting over the 36 percent of voters who didn’t side with either of them in the primary, Bry could win 75 percent of them and still not cross 50 percent. With just a quarter of those toss-up voters, Gloria would end up at 50.3 percent of the vote.

But the other part is that it assumes only those who voted in March will vote in November. In normal circumstances, it’d be safe to assume that turnout will jump in November, with President Donald Trump on the ballot. But then again, the post-COVID-19 world is not normal circumstances.

Arts Groups Try to Pre-Empt Talks of Cuts

Jonathon Glus, the executive director of the Commission for Arts and Culture, which is responsible for overseeing the city’s grants to arts organizations. / Photo by Vito Di Stefano

Two weeks ago in the Politics Report (a “week” is a measurement of time demarcated by seven days and it has been two of those since the report we’re discussing came out — just to help you get situated if you, like us, could use some guide posts to mark the passage of time), we reviewed some of the decisions the city and county were going to have to make soon.

One of the biggest is coming up: San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer has the fun job right now of preparing both a mid-year modification to the budget and a draft of next year’s budget. A budget, to review, is a plan for how you will spend money in the coming year and what limitations city managers have in how they spend it. But it is based on how the economy is going to perform and how much the city government will make from that.

And we really have no idea what the economy is going to do and the people who do make those estimations are being real downers these days.

So estimating what the tax revenue will be for a city is brutal. But we do know it’s bad so you can just decide to assume city budgeting is going to be really painful. The mayor’s going to have to realign last year’s expectation and then plan next year’s.

We’ll be watching what cuts he aims for closely.

But knowing it’s going to be bad, we started the discussion two weeks ago about what kinds of things may be done, and we talked to Councilman Chris Cate, who mentioned, among many other things, possibly cutting back on the arts. The city gives grants to many nonprofits to help with events and capital expenses that drive culture and tourism in San Diego.

Well, we heard from the arts community: To be more specific, we got a letter from Matt Carney and Alan Ziter, the co-chair and past co-chair, respectively, of the San Diego Regional Arts and Culture Coalition. They would like you to know that the city has made many commitments to the city’s culture and funding went down the last year, contrary to Cate’s point about how much more the city had invested in it.

Several years ago, the City Council and former Mayor Jerry Sanders made a commitment to direct about 10 percent of the transient occupancy tax (which is a 10.5 percent levy on hotel bills) to arts organizations that support some of the tourism that pays for those taxes.

Carney and Ziter said it may be more than before but not close to that goal. “His statement does not tell the whole story and takes a hit at an economic sector that is fighting to sustain jobs while offering cultural enrichment in every neighborhood in San Diego,” they wrote of Cate’s comments.

Cate responded to their letter: Cate acknowledged that last year the groups got slightly less than the year before. But he pointed out that arts groups got more than 40 percent more in last year’s budget than they got five years ago. And they got that even in years when other departments had to make cuts.

“Unfortunately in these unprecedented times with millions unemployed, severe drops in tourism and sales tax revenues, and thousands of businesses potentially being shuttered, the city will have to make very difficult decisions with very limited resources,” Cate said in an email.

Mayor, Managers Back Off Furloughs for Library, Parks Workers

Last week, we broke the news that the mayor had decided that hundreds of city employees would either have to take leave or not be paid starting Monday but that the Municipal Employees Association and other labor leaders were objecting. It was essentially a furlough of city workers who didn’t find other roles helping the mayor deal with the fallout from the coronavirus shutdown.

The union appears to have prevailed. City Hall managers backed off their plan Thursday. Both sides apparently agreed that they would try to adapt to new needs as best as possible and make sure that employees were pitching in.

Michael Zucchet, the general manager of the Municipal Employees Association, said he was happy with the resolution and appreciated the mayor’s efforts on it.

“We will continue to work together to navigate this crisis and its effect on city finances and operations,” Zucchet said.

Six city unions still have pending negotiations with the city over new contracts.

Treasurer Tax Collector Never Budged; Promises Compassion

Dan McAllister, the elected treasurer tax collector, faced some serious bipartisan pressure over the last two weeks to announce some kind of break on property taxes. Those are due, well, yesterday (Friday, April 10).

This week, County Supervisors Kristin Gaspar and Jim Desmond asked him to announce that restaurant owners and others could get a break on their dues and pay them in installments over the coming year. McAllister also heard from members of the Lincoln Club of San Diego County, a group of business executives who lean conservative on political contests. They also pushed him to provide some kind of break.

But he has been steadfast: “Our first job is to collect as much money as is due,” he said. “We have been trying to communicate to people that it is important that they pay their taxes. The money is local and pays for schools and the county and cities and a variety of public safety and first responder services they’re relying on today.”

He said now the office would transition to hearing pleas from people who couldn’t make their payments.

“We will have the opportunity to talk to people about their concerns and why they may have been late, and it is up to us to show some compassion and review the supporting documentation they provide. It’s pretty easy to do,” McAlliser said.

One concerning number: McAllister reported that, right at the deadline Friday evening, only about 80 percent of people had made their second installment of property taxes. There are three major buckets of property taxpayers. One group is automatic: Mortgage lenders who pay on behalf of borrowers to ensure nobody messes it up. More than one-third of payers do it this way. It’s a lock. The second group pays in two installments: One starting in November and one in February, which is due now. And the third group are people who just pay online or in the mail on their own around this time.

That second group has only turned in about 80 percent of their second installments as of our press time.

Normally, more than 99 percent of taxpayers pay their taxes.

If you have a tip or feedback for the most popular public affairs newsletter that comes out on Saturday mornings in San Diego, the Politics Report, send it to scott.lewis@voiceofsandiego.org or andrew.keatts@voiceofsandiego.org and we’ll get to it when our kids leave us alone. 

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