It was a mixed week for Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider and her ambitious package of three ballot initiatives, which if passed by voters this November could net City Hall $12 million a year. On the plus side, the politically influential Democratic Women of Santa Barbara County came out in favor of Schneider’s plan. But the Democratic Central Committee expressed serious misgivings at its meeting this Thursday evening and asked the mayor to cease gathering signatures pending further discussion of possible changes. (She said she’s willing to discuss changes, but declined to stop collecting signatures to qualify her measure for the November ballot.)
Earlier that same day, the mayor experienced serious turbulence at a meeting with the Downtown Organization (DO), which represents downtown merchants and property owners. Although no action was taken, many members were vocal in their criticisms, as has been Randy Rowse — the former DO leader and now a member of the City Council. Likewise, city councilmember Frank Hotchkiss and former councilmember Dan Secord — two prominent Republicans who had expressed varying degrees of enthusiasm for aspects of the mayor’s plan in recent weeks — have come out emphatically against it. (Hotchkiss had endorsed the measure in weeks past, where Secord never actually did.)
From the left side of the aisle, Schneider’s proposals took a hit from PUEBLO, though hobbled by the recent termination of its South Coast director, and the Tri-County Labor Council. Schneider noted that neither organization had sought her out for discussions prior to their actions. Schneider has noted many times that there’s much for everyone to dislike in her package, and this week’s actions seem to bear her out.
This February, Schneider unveiled a package of four inter-related initiatives that she argued would help stabilize City Hall’s precarious fiscal picture while at the same time helping the Santa Barbara School District. The centerpiece of her proposal is a half-cent increase in the city’s sales tax which Schneider estimated would generate $10 million a year. That would be split 50-50 with the school district, and Schneider proposed an advisory ballot measure to accomplish that. In addition, she proposed a quarter-percent bump on the business license fee charged to downtown bar and restaurant owners that serve booze after 11 at night; this, she predicted would generate $250,000 a year, which could help defray the cost of maintaining law and order in the downtown entertainment district. Lastly, Schneider proposed an initiative that would require all city unions to pay the maximum employee contribution allowed by law for their retirement plans. Members of the Service Employees International Union already pay that, so the real impact would be felt by police officers and fire fighters, for whom the change would cost roughly $8,000 a year per person. Combined, Schneider said, that would save City Hall $2 million a year.
Schneider structured the deal such that for either the sales tax increase or the pension change to pass, voters had to approve both. By so doing, she hoped to entice voters upset about employee pensions — typically more conservative — to support a sales tax increase which, typically, conservative voters don’t embrace.
For Schneider, who according to recent polls enjoys a 65 percent popularity rate with high propensity voters, it was a bold and dramatic move. But many movers and shakers within the political world — on both sides of the aisle — only heard about it after Schneider’s grand unveiling press conference. A handful had been notified just the night before. For many, that smarted personally. Politically, they argued, Schneider was acting recklessly. For Schneider to stitch together the makings of a functional coalition will no doubt require much of the considerable political good she’s generated over the years. But it won’t be easy.
Republicans and business interests recoil at the idea of a tax increase on the grounds of political theology in much the same fashion that some union supporters — the backbone of the Democratic Party — contend pension reform should be achieved at the bargaining table, not the ballot box. Then there’s the local versus statewide affiliation among Democratic Party activists. Governor Jerry Brown is pushing a sales tax increase initiative for the November ballot and is reportedly threatening to punish anyone politically foolhardy enough to put a competing measure on the same ballot. The more sales tax measures voters see, Brown worries, the more likely they will be to vote no.
But Schneider is strongly pushing the virtues of local control, assuring anyone who will listen that our hard-earned sales tax dollars won’t be sucked up by the state and spent who knows how, but right here within Santa Barbara City limits. And with the death of the city’s Redevelopment Agency — at the hand of Jerry Brown and the Democratic majority in the state legislature — Schneider reminds people there will be many millions less a year at City Hall’s disposal. If voters want homeless programs maintained, police protection enhanced, arts funded, at-risk youth tended to, and libraries re-opened on Mondays, Schneider is arguing that some new source of money must be tapped.
The extent to which any of Schneider’s proposals can be modified is limited. There’s not enough time to make alterations to the text of her initiatives and begin anew the process of collecting signatures and still hope to qualify for the November ballot. But she has made changes. In the face of intense opposition from the Public Education Foundation — which is pushing two parcel tax measures on the June ballot to fund school programs — Schneider agreed to certain compromises. (The Foundation was upset at the prospect of having voters encounter multiple education tax measures, even if they occurred in different elections. Some voters might be dissuaded from supporting the June parcel taxes, its consultants argued, if there were people collecting signatures for another measure slated for November.)
Based on this concern, Schneider has agreed not to discuss the possibility of splitting any sales tax increase with the schools until after the June election. At that point, she said, she would ask her fellow councilmembers to place an advisory measure to split the proceeds with the school on the November ballot. Given that it appears four councilmembers currently do not support Schneider’s package, it has yet to be seen whether the votes are there to put such advisory language before city voters in November.
In the meantime, Schneider said she intends to keep collecting signatures so she can find out once and for all what the voters, rather than the political interests, think.