Editorial: Sacramento's sales tax hike is not a blank check for city

Published: Sunday, Nov. 11, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 6E
Last Modified: Sunday, Nov. 11, 2012 - 11:19 am

Yes, Sacramento voters decisively approved a half-cent sales tax hike to start restoring public safety and other services.

But that's no reason for City Hall to take any victory laps, or to claim any mandate for business as usual.

Its failure to hold the line on labor costs helped force such deep layoffs and cuts in police, fire and parks services that most residents saw little choice except to dig deeper into their own pockets.

The additional $28 million a year is not a blank check. City Council members and top city officials are pledging to hire police officers, end brownouts of fire rigs and restore parks maintenance – and to not spend the money on more generous salaries and benefits.

They better keep that promise. They'll soon be tested because the contracts with both the police and firefighters unions are up next June.

It can't be ignored that those same unions funded nearly all of the Yes on Measure U campaign. The firefighters union gave $25,000 directly, plus $95,000 to its independent expenditure group, which blanketed the city with door hangers, mailers, yard signs and robocalls.

The police union gave $15,000 to the campaign through Oct. 20, according to campaign finance reports.

Another $15,000 came from the plumbers and pipefitters local, which just got a cushy three-year contract extension that guarantees its members get any general pay raises given to police officers or firefighters. In return, Local 447 has to pay the employee share of pension costs – but only if the police union agrees.

All the union cash overwhelmed the token opposition, which raised less than $2,000 by Oct. 20. That disparity certainly played a role in the measure's 63 percent approval.

The sales tax should not be viewed as a windfall, but as a necessary – and temporary – burden.

Combined with the quarter-cent increase in the state portion of the sales tax that kicks in with the passage of Proposition 30, the sales tax in Sacramento will jump from 7.75 percent to 8.5 percent on April 1.

The Prop. 30 sales tax hike ends in four years. Sacramento's increase doesn't sunset for six years.

Sacramento will have the highest sales tax in the region, putting many businesses at a competitive disadvantage and hurting families who live from paycheck to paycheck.

As the economy improves and city tax revenue rebounds, council members need to look carefully at ending the increase sooner.

And if they don't spend the proceeds wisely – if money goes to pay off their union benefactors – they will be betraying the voters.

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