Local Government
Commentary: Mayors Don’t See Eye to Eye on Infrastructure Fixes

Commentary: Mayors Don’t See Eye to Eye on Infrastructure Fixes

By Joel Fox.

Can a Northern California big city Democratic mayor and a Southern California big city Republican mayor find common ground when it comes to infrastructure improvements? Sacramento’s Darrell Steinberg and San Diego’s Kevin Faulconer both want infrastructure improvements but place a different emphasis on how to get the job done.

The mayors talked infrastructure fixes to a Public Policy Institute of California audience in Sacramento last Friday, the event moderated by PPIC president Mark Baldassare.

Steinberg wanted an easier path to raise taxes for transportation needs. The Sacramento/Placer County sales tax measure in November missed the required two-thirds vote requirement by less than two percentage points. Steinberg said he didn’t understand the two-thirds vote requirement for earmarked taxes. He argued that if a government identifies what the tax revenue is being used for then a majority vote should be satisfactory.

I’ll have a response to Mayor Steinberg’s suggestion at the end of the article.

Mayor Faulconer said government has to deliver on promises on transportation fixes, summarizing the efforts put into San Diego roads repairs using 50% of new money that came into the city’s treasury. Pensions is a concern of Mayor Faulconer who said pension reform is needed to prevent the crowding out of other services to meet the pension obligations.

The two mayors also had different ideas about California’s premier infrastructure project—high-speed rail.

Steinberg said he still believes in high-speed rail and suggested a high-speed train from the Silicon Valley through San Francisco to Sacramento would be a boon to Sacramento’s economy.

As to getting funding for infrastructure needs, Steinberg said that infrastructure is one area in which a resistant California can work with White House. Steinberg is not only open to working with the White House on infrastructure needs but also open to explore the use of public-private partnerships to stretch public dollars for infrastructure.

On high-speed rail, Faulconer countered that it is time to acknowledge that the high-speed rail project is not happening as promised. He recommended taking the money targeted for the bullet train and using it on other transportation needs.

On the issue of housing, both mayors acknowledged the need for a path to lowering housing costs. Steinberg called for some regulatory reform along with a permanent funding source for housing. Faulconer said CEQA reform was imperative to reduce homebuilding costs.

Steinberg said that the April 6 deadline set up by the legislature to deal with transportation infrastructure would force legislators to reach solutions. His formula for success is compromise. Relax a little on the ideology, he said, see the argument from the other side, and “give to get” a resolution.

But Faulconer cautioned the infrastructure reformers—technology could upset the best plans. As an example, he said, the autonomous vehicles could change transportation plans so the reformers and reforms must be nimble to adjust.

As to the suggestion to lower the two-thirds vote for specific purposes at the local level making it easier to raise taxes, the practical results would see many earmarked taxes on the ballot tying up revenue for specific services. Without voter approval the revenue cannot be diverted to other, possibly more needed areas.

A lowering of the vote requirement for taxes would lead to an increased tax burden on voters as pleas are made for more money for services embraced by the public like police and fire.

You can bet there won’t be a tax increase directly for funding pensions but because budget money is fungible raising revenue for specific services frees up budget dollars for pension obligations thus lessening the impetus for pension reform.

Meanwhile, the latest PPIC poll reports that only 41% of likely voters supported the idea of lowering the two-thirds vote requirement for local taxes to fund transportation.

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